Reviews, 1.25.15 Edition

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How Asia Works – I enjoyed this book especially for its unveiled assault on economists.  Points that I found especially interesting are at the end of this post, because it’s long.

The Party – China’s is not a government based on consensus, on transparency, or even on consistency.  That may be obvious, but what this book made me realize is that it seems the CCCP has only one of two MO’s in China: total control, or abdication of it.  For purposes of self-preservation, they cannot choose the latter, so it’s basically all or nothing.

The Little Prince – I finally read it for the first time two days ago.  ‘What is important is invisible’.  This is about love bridging the vast distances between people, who are little islands, little stars or planets of themselves.  Love turns undifferentiated beds of roses into twinkling stars.  St. Exupery was an airline pilot, spending lots of time flying alone over the lights of the earth, traveling all the time – for a superb treatment of this, read Wind, Sands and Stars.  His work resounds with a sense of loneliness as a result.  But it imbues his stories with a sense of gratitude, almost love.

Sleepcycle – an Android app that has been working well for me.  It uses the accelerometer to monitor the lightness/heaviness of your sleep, and wakes you up during the lightest part of it.  For the past 7 days, I have avoided that heavy, groggy feeling that lasts the entire morning when woken up during the wrong part of the cycle.  This has helped me realize that ‘sleep’ is actually a connected string of multiple cycles, rather than just one continuous, unbroken strand.  Also, that having a variable alarm clock is probably better than trying to wake up at the same time every morning.

Shanghai Number One – Excellent dim sum, despite its reviews (on Yelp).  Ratings for dim sum around San Gabriel and Alhambra seem a little skewed downward in general, maybe from the perception of service and the difficulty in communicating with the servers.  I would rate this at minimum a 4, if not 5 on Yelp.  Excellent.

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LAX – another month, another few hours spent in the airport that has a fair shot of being the world’s worst.  When a high-pitched alarm is going off inside the terminal because someone has accidentally or illegally opened an alarmed door, why does it take 10 minutes for someone to shut it off?  Why are airport employees just sitting around, walking idly by while the alarm sounds like an eardrum-piercing needle?

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Things I’ve Learned as a Consultant – Part II

  • As an extension of the last point of the last post, when you’re in professional services, whether banking, law, design, consulting, whatever, you’re trying to sell someone something that there are no physical results of.  And sometimes, not even precedents.  You’re saying ‘trust us’.  So how do you build that trust?  A brand goes a long way.

  • But having been on both sides of this – the salesman and the person doing the contracting/hiring, I believe the absolute best thing that will help you nail the pitch, without question, is a sample.  Samples are the strongest test, for the simple fact that having something that addresses the requirements perfectly makes you impossible to ignore.  This not only makes them know you are capable of doing the job, but that you’ve listened.  It is a rare client that knows 100% exactly what he or she wants before the service has started, because as I’ve written in the previous post, clients engage you based on a dark nebula of capabilities they imagine you can do.  In the beginning, it is important for them to know that you are responsive, that you can react to their feedback.

  • But I cannot stress this enough:

    “Let em test the product, give em a promo show/Just a breeze, not enough to catch a real vibe/Then we drop a maxi single and charge em two for five/Ain’t tryin to, kill em at first just, buildin clientele/So when the album drops the first weeks it’s gon’ sell” – Jay-Z (Rap Game/Crack Game)

    The reason is that if you have a sample or a pitch that addresses their requirements, it will cause them anguish if they have to pick someone over you.  It will cause them to justify their own metrics.  You will be remembered.

  • If you are in a profession that does not allow you to provide a work sample, just be aware that a buyer of services, especially if they are purchasing a particular service for the first time, will latch onto other things (attribute substitution).  For example, how polished of a speaker are you?  Do you buckle under pressure?  Do they like you?  Do you have the proper gravitas?  Are you older, do you have a few grey hairs?  Many of them are unfair and irrelevant, but this is what happens, so it helps to be aware.

  • Related to that last point, there are people in the consulting business who dye their hair grey and wear glasses in order to appear older and more experienced.  Just saying.  When you’re a bright young person it’s easy to become disillusioned about this.  But if you encounter this situation, it is better to step back.  What is it really telling you?  That as much as you think clients are paying for the actual insight, they’re paying for reassurance.  They are buying the brand.

  • The higher your fee, and the longer you take, the higher the expectations of your client.  They will grow.  And grow.  It is better to program in interim deliverables to anchor their expectations early and allow for feedback.  This is as a result of differing perceptions of time between those in the flow of doing work, and those waiting for something.

  • But curiously, even if you are able to finish something ahead of schedule, having any extra time left leads to doubts.  You’ll check and recheck your work.  Due to Parkinson’s law, the project has a good chance of actually always ending up taking the amount of time allotted to it.

  • Everything is about good communication.  It’s not just about having the facts or a superior product.  You can have a superior product and still lose the pitch, you can have all the facts and insights but fail to engender understanding.  And you can have titular authority in your firm, but fail in managing or marshaling the resources of the people under you.  Good communication includes soft skills, connecting with people, speaking with enthusiasm, being authentic, etc.

  • Smaller clients are good because often you work directly with the person who is both the decision-maker and stakeholder in the service.  But smaller clients have less to lose when they try to negotiate your fee – down – after you’ve already performed.  They can also be demanding, and your interactions will be subject to the whims of the person buying your service, who is often the same person writing your check.  Big clients will often have no problem paying you, but because the stakeholders, decision-makers, and people you are interacting with can be three different sets of people, the layers of hierarchy and management can lead to confusion, delays, conflicting directives, which ultimately means, more time spent on it and more work for you.

  • Since consulting is the business of selling brains, the necessary conclusion to this premise is that the better the brains perform within a given length of time, the more value you can capture, and the less costs you incur.  Research has shown that cognitive thinking is a physiological process, meaning it’s another body function regulated by energy levels.  Keep up your energy levels and you have the potential for longer periods of higher thought.  Exercise, meditate, eat right.  This cannot be stressed enough, and goes back to the athletic component of traveling for consulting.

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Things I’ve Learned as a Consultant

  • As in any other job, being good at the job is a process, not an outcome.  Pursuit of the frontiers of the field, a focus on incorporating new ideas, relentless introspection and feedback, hard work, and constant improvement of technical skills will help you stay ahead.

  • Identifying and improving the necessary technical skills was the easy part.  Merely recognizing what the other necessary skills were, like salesmanship, self-discipline, introspection, hard work, was harder, and it was hard to miss that I didn’t even have them.

  • Consulting is a lifestyle choice.  This is not only when it comes to travel, although that is a significant portion of it.  The consulting lifestyle revolves around the project lifecycle.  It starts with the pitch and sale, moves onto research and analysis, and concludes with presentation and feedback and iteration – with different required skills in each portion of the cycle.

  • When extensive travel is required across multiple time zones, being good contains a physical, athletic aspect to it as well.  Maintaining clarity of thought, focus, and polished communication skills when I am physically in a meeting with a client while my biological clock is deep in an REM cycle, is as physically demanding as being in minute 32 of an intensive Muay Thai workout.

  • There is another, longer cycle, which is the lifecycle of a consultant himself or herself.  As an entry-level person, you are primarily engaged in research, analysis, report preparation.  As you progress out of the back office (figuratively speaking) and into more of a client-facing role, you are called on to do more meetings, pitches, presentations, face-to-face communications with the client.  Before you know it, your job is no longer research and analysis; it turns into that of a representative, salesman, and manager of the younger versions of you.  As with the project-cycle, different skills are required at different points in the cycle.

  • There are several things about the nature of the job itself.  First, a consultant is a paid outsider, so that no matter how convincing you are, nor how much you know, you have no inherent power to actually implement your ideas.  Clients can and will ignore your advice.  This can be demoralizing.

  • Another important thing about the nature of the job itself is that that you’re in the business of selling time – your time, which is finite.  Consulting is the business of selling your capabilities to achieve a recommendation, insight, or strategy, which in itself is the product of human minds working in real-time.  If that sounds vague, that’s because it is.  And because what you’re selling is so undefined, there is naturally a huge variability to it, regarding both the actual product and your client’s expectations.  Managing both of these things becomes a huge drain on resources and time.  Clients will, almost as a rule, demand that you do anything and everything for them that they’ve seen you do, read about you doing, heard about you doing, and imagine that you can do.

  • Because of this variability (also known as customization), scaling a consulting practice is difficult.  Consulting is the business of leasing a limited portion of human brainpower for a limited period of time to accomplish a task.  Unless the human brains in your employ can be programmed to think faster and more effectively at the same time, increasing the productivity of the fundamental resource (brains) has natural limits.

    But scaling can be done, and in order to do so, the metric that I find natural and easy to focus on is the implied professional fee that is being charged to the client.  This can be done in almost any service industry: think about what you’re charging the client in terms of an implied per hour cost.  Take your fee and divide it by the number of hours you or your people will work.  Whether it is $100, $200, $500, $1000+, the principle is the same.

    If you want to scale and grow, you need to ruthlessly outsource tasks that can be performed at an equivalent level to those with the lowest rate.  If your rate is $500/hour, does it make sense for you to be doing document preparation or formatting that you can pay $15 to $20/hour for?  Or even to be maintaining a model yourself?  The argument to this is that by removing yourself from the work, the overall work will lose quality.  As a thought experiment, does a film lose quality because a director is not doing the cinematography or acting himself?  This is a big problem in small consulting companies where everyone is expected to do everything.  My experience has suggested to me that this is immensely inefficient.

    Merely going through this exercise will force you to develop systems, templates, methods, and training, which will increase the productivity of the entire team.  Another issue at play here is the sheer economics of batch tasking and the costs of switching.  Switching tasks incurs mental and thus temporal costs.  Even if, theoretically, there were a ‘superstar’ consultant who could do each of 5 individual tasks at a superior rate than anyone else in the organization, this person may still be slower to complete the entire ‘set’ of tasks than 5 different people specializing in those tasks, because of the switching costs.

    This is the kind of issue you deal with as you make the transition from entry-level positions to higher ones, and you’ll have to abandon old habits and gain new ones.  This is the kind of struggle you experience at any professional services firm.  Where you go from being a person who produces work, to the one who guides and oversees it, and then finally who ‘manages’ and sells it.  You remove yourself from the work that you were originally hired to do, and you need to develop new skills to adapt.

  • It may very well be the case that you are content with the level of sales and work-to-reward ratio you are experiencing.  Then none of this applies.  But in a changing world, stagnation is by definition a regression.  To even keep up, we must keep growing and optimizing.

  • More on people – who as brain-carriers, are a consulting firm’s primary asset, as the saying goes.  Programmers talk about the 10x programmer, and to a certain extent I believe this is true of people in any service-oriented industry.  Performance conforms to a distribution with fat tails on either end.  80% of the people are in the middle, which does not imply mediocre.  It just means everyone is clustered there.  Then there are the 1-5% who are outliers in either direction.  Alternatively, if you think about the 80/20 rule, it is saying that a sufficing level of work, the 80%, is easy to achieve.  This is the equivalent to getting a solid B in a bell-curve weighted class.  I hated this system in college, by the way.  But the 20% is the spread field, where you distinguish yourself from others.  It’s a wide open field.  20% is the details, and this is where people differentiate themselves by adding more value than others.

    Think of it this way.  Say you hire a painter to paint your walls.  Both cover the walls in paint, but one of them pays attention to the details.  He covers your existing furniture, he pays attention to the finishes, making sure the edges and corners are perfect, nothing is smudged, no glue is on the ground, nothing has been broken, making sure there is absolutely no blemish anywhere, everywhere.  Conscientiousness and care go a long way in differentiating yourself from the pack.  To use a consulting example, at the analyst level, this would be someone who works faster and harder than others, builds new frameworks and approaches, even while paying attention to formatting and presentation, to typos, wording, someone who builds models that can be easily followed by others, someone who integrates frameworks located across different sources, someone who doesn’t hard-code inputs in Excel, etc.

  • All of the above is in the name of widening the gap between implied hours charged for, and hours actually worked.  The other way to do this, obviously, is by increasing the number of implied hours charged for; i.e. charging more.  The easiest thing to envision, in theory, is the hardest to pull off, and this is to develop a truly unique skill.  A moat skill, a monopoly skill, one that no one else has.  As in the story of the repairman and the hammer.  When you develop a skill like this, you can charge whatever you want.  But this is incredibly difficult to do.

  • The more realistic thing that can be done is develop a brand and a reputation for good work.  A brand is something that does marketing for you even while you sleep.  A brand helps you charge more for work of an equivalent quality, because in consulting, the hardest thing to realize is that people are not buying the service itself – they are buying the reassurance.  This is why lawyers can get paid even when there is a risk of losing, and consultants can get paid when there is the clear possibility of finding nothing new.  This relates back to the old saying that consultants are in the business of using the client’s watch and getting paid to tell them what time it is.  But people hire them anyway.

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Sanya (Some Observations)

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I went to Sanya for a project.

Sanya – is humid, scorching hot, tropical, and everywhere you go, they serve you coconut water.  I absolutely loved it.  I wish I could have stayed longer, but unfortunately I uploaded a picture like the one above to my Instagram, and it immediately raised jealous eyebrows among my partners back at home as to the nature of my activities.

Here are some basic facts:

  • Sanya is the southernmost city of China.  It’s located at the southern tip of the jewel-shaped island of Hainan.  The city is located across a series of bays that looks out over a blue, warm ocean straight into Vietnam.
  • Approximately 20 million visitors fly into the island a year.  Compare this to 7 million to Hawaii, 10 million to Jeju, ~3 million to Bali, >2 million to Boracay, or 40 million to Las Vegas.
  • Occupancy levels of hotels average 55%.

Speaking of occupancy levels, I prepared the handy chart below of the major areas in Sanya.  This is a bubble map of the hotels in Sanya, using data purchased from STR Global (most of the addresses had to be corrected in order to yield decent lat/long coordinates, by the way).

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I stayed mostly in Yalong Bay and Sanya Bay.  Yalong Bay was master-developed starting in 1996, and is a cluster of 4- and 5-star resorts along white sandy beaches.  Haitang Bay is the ‘new’ area, as I’ll demonstrate later.  Sanya Bay is where the downtown area is.  Dadonghai has good surf, I was told, to my dismay.

Here’s a gratuitous picture of jasmine rice cooked into a coconut, and sliced as if it were fruit.

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The island operates on an ‘island’ model.  And lest that seem mind-numbingly obvious, let me explain.  Even in Yalong Bay, which is master-planned, every resort is so large, so self-contained and an island unto itself, with no connection to the others, it requires inconvenient taxi access to get anywhere.  Each resort is designed to keep you there.  This is in contrast to other master-developed destinations like Laguna Phuket.  The scale of the island was a little staggering.  It takes 30 minutes to get from the downtown area to Yalong Bay, and another 20 or more to get to Haitang Bay.

So in Yalong Bay, what do you do when you’re bored at night?  There are two retail and dining plazas like the one below.  One is called Bai Hua Gu, and the other the Ya Tai center.  Both are located at the T-intersection that divides Yalong Bay into an east and west, right where you would want to be.  As a real estate consultant, my straw hat went off to the person(s) who got the option on those land parcels.

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And what else is there to do?  First of all, people come here for the beach!  It’s a white-sand beach, with water at tropical temperatures – the kind of water temperature that always feels to me like I’m jumping into a warm pool of blood.  Is that just me?

But a word of warning.  The beach in Sanya is not the kind of beach, that in all probability if you’re reading this, that you’re used to.  Beach access is controlled, in that only those affiliated with a resort can use the square meterage dedicated to that particular resort.  Also, the lifeguards are a little officious in that they’ll blow their whistles at anything.

Although after narrowly ducking under a speedboat aimed at my head, with no warning to be heard, I wonder if the whistles meant anything at all.

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Yalong Bay was a magnificent place.  I stayed at the Universal Resort, on the less-upscale eastern end (bordered at the extreme eastern end by a naval base, and a view of warships), but got to tour the others.  Here is the view from the Universal Resort across the lake.

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Here is the MGM, looking out onto the beach.  So eye-blindingly beautiful even my camera couldn’t handle it.

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Here was the Ritz, I believe.

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Here was the St. Regis(?).  I don’t remember.  What I do remember was when I was taking this picture, that woman walked down from the lobby stairs where I was, and the sea breeze kicked up, fluttering her dress in a brilliant liquefaction of red.  It was a nice moment that the picture doesn’t do justice to.

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There are about 17 resorts in Yalong Bay like the above.  But say you want to go out into town, what else can you do?

Sanya proper is just like another southern Chinese city.  Crowded, and full of hustlers, restaurants, nightlife, and cars aimed at pedestrians.  There are a lot of things to do, most of which I skipped.  But in my capacity as an attractions consultant, here are the few I did go to.

Let’s get the sad one out of the way.  There are a number of old attractions in Sanya, built before tourism really hit an inflection point, which for attraction product is right about…right now.  After all, it’s been through the cycle: residential -> villas -> retail -> hotel -> theme parks (climbing ever higher on the risk curve).

Anyway, the below is a penguin refrigerator.  As in, you don those overcoats and go into the air-conditioned shed and see four penguins.  I sent my analyst to go see it.

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There’s also this one, a car stunt show.  This ‘Bizzaro Show’ opened this year, but I noticed that the cafe was already in disrepair and unused.  No matter, they’re selling out every night.

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You can also go to Phoenix Island to watch a burlesque show/beauty pageant.  It’s located in another one of those self-proclaimed ‘7-star hotels’.  I’ve been in this industry for about a decade and there’s no authority that decides star ratings, so my question to you, Phoenix Island hotel, is why aim so low?  If the Burj Al Arab hit 7 stars in 1999, why only go for 7?  Why not 8?  Wouldn’t that be a luckier number in China, anyway?

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But finally, the best ‘attraction’ in Sanya right now is the Songcheng Group-developed Qianguqing ‘Romance Park’.  This is a typical Songcheng production, of themed grounds built around a show extravaganza.  I’ve commented on this before, but Chinese theme parks definitely do not short themselves on ‘theme’.  The rockwork and theming at Chinese theme parks is among the best in the world.  The continuity, consistency, attention to sightlines, though, are a different matter..

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The show itself is an assemblage of different elements.  This one started off with girls in bikinis slithering on a transparent tarp that unfolded over our heads.  Yes.

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Songcheng shows are a collection of set pieces, featuring acrobatics, singing, dancing, lasers, and visual effects.  Usually there’s some type of incorporation of local myths and stories.

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The last few days I worked and stayed at the Pullman Sanya.  This was a very pleasant stay, from the scents in the arrival lobby to the nice network of varied pools, all embedded in tropical jungle foliage.  The combination of those colors below – deep green and tropical blue – must stimulate some atavistic part of the brain, towards happiness.

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And lastly, there was no place to put this before, but here’s a Haitang Bay resort under construction.  I found this sight to be hauntingly beautiful, in a post-apocalyptic manga-kind of way; you can’t tell if it’s being built or abandoned..but it’s very China.  

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Thoughts on the Mongols

The lifestyle of the nomads who populated the Eurasian steppe; known by names as various as the Mongols, the Huns, the Xiong-nu, Kipchaks, Tatars hold a particular fascination for me.  

To imagine that everything you own could be folded up, displaced, and moved to another location within a matter of hours; the fact that your ‘home’ was wherever you decided to set up camp in the entire grasslands across the Asian to European landmass; the fact that you grew up riding horses before walking, and were so connected to horses that you slept and ate on  them, even opening up their veins to drink their blood when you were thirsty; the fact that the very concept of a city, which represented a sedentary lifestyle, was so foreign and unimaginable to you that it was worthy of contempt…

The Mongols under the rule of Genghis Khan are a fascinating study because it seems almost all of their battles were one-sided victories, massacres that left entire cities pillaged and raped.  The Mongol engine bulldozed its way into Europe and south through China, usually outnumbered, but always more nimble, and almost always, victorious.  

There are explanations for this success.  The usual ones are: that the nomads under Genghis Khan were united like never before.  That the Mongol system of organization, and its meritocracy, brought out the best tactics and operational implementation.  That the Mongols used their superior quickness and stamina to bait enemies into open fields, exhausted them, and then killed them without mercy.  That they used fear tactics to decrease morale in their enemies.

It seems to me that the Mongol contempt for cities stemmed from their lifestyle advantage, which led to their success in battle.  They had no home bases to destroy.  Unless their enemies set fire to the entire Eurasian steppe grasslands, the Mongols would always have a feeding ground, base for resources and replenishment, and ways to evade and hide.  Their lifestyle led to no focused point of attack, because their quickness on horses meant they would scatter in all directions into the endless plain.  

It also meant that the entire nomadic lifestyle was very binary.  It was one based on grazing and hunting (living off the land), or war and pillaging (living off other people).  It was a lifestyle that was inherently unstable, veering between those two modes as resources grew scarce.  They did those two things very well, and in this modus operandi, what is sacrificed are the things that can occur in the sedentary life: development of civilization, literature, art, sciences.  

It strikes me that the conflict between the sedentary lifestyle and nomadic lifestyle was waged over an epoch, over almost two millennia, and there was no clear winner during the entire time.  During certain centuries, the latter had the advantage.  And during others, the former had the advantage.  The Romans fought Attila and were sacked by the Visigoths.  Then one thousand years later, the Mongols using essentially the same tactics at a higher speed and organization, took over Asia and parts of Europe.  Then three hundred years later, the Manchus pillaged China in the 1600s.  

This was a war between two lifestyles: one composed of people who ate only red meat, hunted, grazed, and depended on sheer movement as their standard operating mode, and another composed of people who ate the vegetables that they planted, grew, and lived lives of stability within the security of the city walls.  

And while the nomads regarded the city-dwellers with contempt, whenever they took over a civilization they were themselves consumed by that civilization.  They fell into riches.  They fell into comfort.  They could not help but succumb to stability.  They became effete relative to the standard by which they had conquered the former civilization.  And the elders saw this happening: Genghis Khan himself foresaw that his grandchildren would succumb to the pleasures of civilization and lack the vigor with which he had conquered nations.  The Manchu sent their children to be indoctrinated in their ancestral homelands in Manchuria, going so far as to try to establish a seat of administration there in an attempt to preserve their ‘Manchu-ness’, feeling that in the course of establishing an empire they were losing the values that had brought them there.  And gradually, their children and their children’s children did indeed lose their grasp on the empires their forefathers had established.  They grew weak.  

There is something so gripping about this drama between these two modes of life.  The nomadic one, while one-dimensionally superior in war, was a lifestyle of ongoing consumption, a sustenance-based one that consumed so many resources in its development and support of warfaring abilities that nothing was, or could be left behind.  The sedentary one, one that spread its resources more evenly but thinly, relying on stability for the architecture from which to grow, to produce the fruit of civilization.  But one whose pleasures could ultimately be its own downfall.  In this you can make so many analogies to entire civilizations, companies, and even individual human lives.  And I’ll leave that to you to interpret.  

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When I was living in Hong Kong, I liked leaving the house early, because it’s always good to start the day at a measured pace.  And you only had two windows of ‘measured pace’ in Hong Kong – either really early or late at night.  The streets turned somewhat insane around 8:30 to 9.  The air was still balmy in the morning, but on good days, you could walk the whole way from the escalators all the way down to Central without breaking a sweat.  As you passed Soho you would see the street sweepers come out and clean up the devastation of the night before.  The shops weren’t open yet, and the deliveries are just starting.  There would be the slightest tinge of a coolness in the air, one that would quickly turn muggy and suffocating as the day went by.

When I left the apartment and went downstairs, I would greet Mr. Wong, who would already be there or just arriving.  Alert, attentive, even when he was sitting there behind the counter, he was unlike any other doorman I encountered in Hong Kong.  He would press the button to let you in or out, the moment you were within two steps of the door.  His peripheral vision and motion detection abilities were superhuman.  The moment you stepped into his line of sight, he pressed that button to let you in or out.  He greeted you with a loud ‘Good morning!’ or ‘hello!’  Unlike our other doorman, who either ignored you entirely or watched you like a curious specimen, as you passed by or waved.  He never ate in front of the tenants, but there were times he disappeared from sight, into the little cubby-hole behind the desk, where I assumed he was taking his lunch or dinner.  And he was there from the time I left for work at 7, until the evenings past dinnertime.  There were only two shifts of the doormen during the entire 24 hour period, and he worked most of it.  Sometimes when we got back from a night out, he was still there, talking to the lady who pretty much kept the building running.

At various times I would see her cleaning the elevator, flattening the boxes, hauling the trash out one floor at a time from all 24 floors (2 buckets per floor).  Sometimes at midnight I would see her walking across the street with a cart loaded with cardboard and wood, and during the day I saw her eating, or talking with a friend in front of the apartment.  Once I asked her about her hours, and she told me it was from 6 am to 10 pm, although I saw her on the streets much later than that.  She had a gentle face and big, strong hands.

At night, the city slowed down.  There was a weary fog that hung over it, like exhaust from the day.  The escalators are going back the other way, the lights are out like stars, in the buildings that are so close together you can right through to all the little exhibits of life in them.  It becomes a city of individuals, instead of a city of crowds.  And for me, they were two of them – always hard-working, always there.

 

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Recollections of Japan

I read this article about Japan and almost cried with nostalgia; I went to Japan occasionally for business and leisure for a period of about two to three years.

One thing any person can learn from Japan is its cultural pursuit of excellence.  In the belief that this is a neverending quest; whatever you call it, perfectionism, craftsmanship, obsession, a pursuit of unattainable ideals, its a mindset that there is a right, and a wrong (poorer) way to do things.  It’s a belief that presentation matters, that there’s an absolute standard by which one can be judged to do their job, that the way you do your job is a reflect of your own self.

Here are some highlights:

  • I lost 300 dollars in a restaurant, it fell out of my coat pocket.  After wandering around Osaka for 3 hours, I returned to the restaurant.  As soon as I walked in, before I could say anything, the server looked at me, exclaimed something with wide-open eyes, and went into the kitchen.  He brought out the 300 dollars folded neatly into a bag and handed it to me, his face exploding in red, as if embarrassed on my behalf.  I nodded deeply as I took it, just saying thank you, thank you.
  • I was on an ANA flight that landed in Narita.  There was a gift for me in the form of a box of candies/pastries.  I ate one, but wasn’t in the mood for any more and put the rest in the seat back pocket.  I left the plane and was already connecting through another terminal when a stewardess rushes up to me, out of breath, with the box in her hand, asking if I had left it.  I had left it there on purpose because I didn’t want it, but now I felt bad I did.  Thank you, thank you, I said.
  • I stayed at an onsen once.  This was out in the middle of nowhere, east of Kyoto, and to get there I had to take a cab that cost a few hundred dollars.  I watched the meter tick up with tears in my eyes and a pit in my stomach.  When I finally got there, it was past midnight and the staff had been waiting up for me, and it turned out they had been calling and emailing my travel agent because I hadn’t arrived yet.  Because I had missed one of the meals, they went into the kitchen and made me a midnight snack.
  • Also, I’ll never forget the time I was in a train station and wanted to use my spare change.  I was hungry, so I bought a chocolate mochi ball at a little kiosk.  I see her take out the mochi from the glass case, then she wraps it in a tissue paper.  Then she places it in another clear plastic bag.  Then she places the clear plastic bag in a box, with some dry ice all around it.  Then she wraps the box in wrapping paper.  Then she ties the whole package in a ribbon, then places it in a gift bag for me to take away.  I watched the whole ritual, which was mesmerizing.  Even though I was hungry, carried it for a while because I felt bad about eating it.
  • I once wanted to leave a tip at a hair salon.  With horrified expressions, the girl held up her hands in the form of an ‘X’, and shook her head violently ‘no’, ‘no’.
  • The taxi drivers wear suits and white gloves.  When they can’t find a place, they turn off the meter in the general vicinity of the place, such is the level of their responsibility.
  • One time I worked with a local REIT, who was our partner on the project.  When I work in other countries, it is common that they shunt all the responsibility on us – meaning that we’re responsible for the research, interviews, data, etc.  On this project, they had everything prepared in both paper and in files stored on USB drives, translated, neatly categorized into folders, color coded.  They delivered it all in a package with additional brochures and even souvenirs, like a stamp collection!  Understand that they were paying us, not the other way around.  The best part is that for about five years afterwards, they sent me personally a hand-signed Christmas card that always had some crazy feature to it, whether it was a pop-up diorama of a city, or an intricate cut-out of a nativity scene.

I’m not being naive about Japan, I know I’m only looking at the rose-tinted version of it, but nevertheless.  The lesson is still there.

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