Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Want a Quick $250,000?

Seriously.

Note that I didn't say easy, but I did say quick.

Next week, I'll be at the Computer Forensics Show in Santa Clara. Today, I learned that there's a bit of a throw-down going on between the keynote speaker and a number of industry experts, which has led to the experts offering some serious coin to the keynote speaker to back up his claims--to put up or shut up.

The keynote has been advertised as follows...

'"When No One Else Can": Data Recovery from a completely overwritten hard drives. Sample Forensic recovery from over written drive from Turkish assassination case, 2007. - Presenter - Alfred Demirjian - CEO at TechFusion' (sic the whole thing--typos are in the original text)

I've spent a reasonable amount of time recovering data off damaged disks, so I know how tough it can be. Of course, those were 3.5" disks at Northwestern in the late 80s, but who's counting? (Where'd I put my remote archival backup of MacTools, anyway?) And, to the co-ed whose disk I over-wrote by transposing the source and target disks, I apologize, a couple of decades late.

If anything stuck with me from Scott Moulton's excellent talk at ShmooCon 2009, it's that a single-pass erase using a proper tool is sufficient to wipe a drive. That's it. Full stop. Scott was pretty confident in his assessment, as were a number of the...uh...ahem..."security practitioners" in the overflowing conference room.

So, I was pretty surprised to learn that the keynote at Computer Forensics was going to be about data recovery from completely overwritten hard drives. Even more surprising to me is that a couple of forensics experts have said that the keynote speaker is selling snake oil.

They're calling shenanigans.

They're calling bullshit.

And they're throwing $250,000 into the pot to get Mr. Demirjian to prove that he can do what he says. The suggested challenges are pretty simple--take a couple of files, do a single random wipe, get 'em back, prove how he did it.

And you thought forensics was dry. Stay tuned throughout the week for further updates. I don't think we're done with this story just yet.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I Want My WebTV

Well, not exactly.

I’m not sure what’s tougher to believe—that I started at WebTV almost 13 years ago, or that I still have t-shirts stating “I Want My WebTV”.

Maybe I should hit the gym more.

The past week saw two get-togethers near and dear to my heart—the Intel Developer Forum and the DLNA Members Meeting. IDF is Intel’s new technology showcase; the DLNA meeting is a chance for representatives from the ~250 member companies to convene to review progress and continue advancing the cause for the connected home.

I often think back to what we bit off at WebTV, and continue to be amazed by the vision of TV that Steve, Bruce, and Phil had waaaaay back in the mid-‘90s. No, WebTV didn’t end up taking over the world. And yes, I think that we proved empirically that consumers don’t want to surf the Internet on their televisions…which might not have been what we set out to do, but we accomplished so much more in those early years on the WebTV platform, whose DNA lives on in millions of IPTV set-top boxes around the world.

The original WebTV was all about the Internet on your television—the simplicity of a compact set-top box, a phone cord, and a connection to the TV. Contrasted with the PC Internet experience of the day, WebTV was revolutionary, cost-effective, and ridiculously easy to use. A year later, the WebTV Plus integrated a TV tuner, an electronic program guide, and honest-to-god interactivity into the television viewing experience. I spent so much of 1998 and 1999 talking about interactive triggers, I could probably still teach analog TV fundamentals classes in my sleep.

VBI Line 21. Crossover links. Good times.

Snapping back to present day, I’m always excited to see additional functionality brought to the television. Whether you believe that the heart of the home is the set-top box, the game console, or simply the display itself, the main television continues to be the family gathering place. Intel has been working diligently on adding additional value to the TV platform, in a manner both visible to consumers and (hopefully) attractive to manufacturers.

Earlier this year, I sat down with Kevin Hattendorf, Platform Marketing Director in Intel’s digital home group. Kevin was kind enough to fill me in on Intel’s goals with their consumer electronics-focused system-on-chip (SOC) platform, and to provide some insight on how Intel views future opportunities in the living room.

In the beginning, there was “CE 1.0”, or analog television. Interactivity and high quality video and audio were difficult or impossible in the analog world, making the introduction of digital television at the beginning of this decade so exciting—“CE 2.0”, as Intel calls it. In the decade or so since digital television delivery came into play, consumers have become used to enhanced services such as electronic program guides, digital video recorders, and video-on-demand.

“CE 3.0” adds Internet connectivity to consumer electronics, providing tremendous value-add to both content and CE usage models. Intel views the combination of Internet capability and a standards-based browser on the television as a mechanism to open up the TV, to bring the freedom of the Internet to the big screen. I agree, for the most part—again, I think that we proved at WebTV that consumers do not want to browse the Internet on their televisions, but that they crave their information, when they want it, presented in a fashion that’s both useful and unobtrusive.

Let’s draw a parallel to mobile devices. Prior to the introduction of the iPhone, most “smart” phones were little more than e-mail devices with lousy browers. Today, the iPhone and devices based on Palm’s webOS and RIM’s OS 5.0 enhance the e-mail experience with a fully functional browser and an application framework which opens up a wealth of customization options. The App Store is the biggest and bestest example of a consumer’s ability to personalize a service-backed device, with more than 75,000 widgets of every flavor; expect application stores from RIM, Palm, and (especially) Android to also begin making their own marks over the next 6-12 months. The great thing about this personalization capability is that it allows each user to create the experience they want, not that the service provider wants. Despite the resultant value dilution of on-deck applications, carriers love the stickiness this capability creates—particularly when the carrier has an exclusive carriage window on the handset (see AT&T + iPhone).

Apple revolutionized the mobile experience by creating a platform for developers to deliver low-cost or free applications to the ever-growing user base of iPhones and iPod Touches. Intel is looking to create a similar framework on the television with their SOCs.

A year ago, Intel introduced the CE3100 processor, a.k.a. Canmore. This week, they followed up with the CE4100, a.k.a. Sodaville. While Kevin and I spoke primarily about Canmore, he stressed multiple benefits from the CE family of Intel Architecture (IA) SOCs—scale, performance, and throughput advantages leading to enhanced user experiences, not to mention the CPU speed we all expect from Intel. Canmore was very much a first generation platform, enabling manufacturers to get their feet wet with Intel Inside of living room devices. Sony, Samsung, LG, and Vizio have all announced TVs built on the Intel architecture, as have other vendors delivering consumer electronics devices; while current products ship using the first generation Canmore platform, future systems will use Sodaville and successors—delivering even more functionality to the living room, and beyond.

Flashback: I remember the first time I visited Samsung’s TV lab in Suwon, in February, 1997. Bill Keating, Jackie Friedman, Spencer Tall, and I strolled in with a handful of WebTV boxes to discuss and demo our wares, to compare and contrast ourselves with the “net-TV” prototype Samsung had built. Keep in mind that these were the days of the tube and the modem, not the broadband, flat-panel landscape we enjoy now. The Samsung engineers rolled in a ~36” tube that must’ve weighed 200 pounds, and lacked a plastic case at the rear of a typical production TV. Wedged behind the screen was a compact (by 1997 standards) PC running Windows 95, with a web browser displaying TV-related Internet content in Korean.

Which looked like crap.

I relate this story not to indict Samsung—in the last decade, they’ve become arguably the most innovative TV manufacturer in the world. I provide this recap to demonstrate what an iterative process product development is, and how far we’ve come in the last dozen years. In 1997, manufacturers were trying to figure out whether to build PCs into their televisions—taking a device with an average selling price of a couple thousand dollars, duct taping it to another device with an average selling price of a couple thousand dollars. Remember that these were the days of a 15-20 year refresh cycle on living room televisions, so two plus two definitely didn’t equal four. As we’ve seen time and again in the consumer electronics industry, the sole successful combo product to date has been the clock radio; camera phones will eventually get there, but it’s been a long slog through a lot of grainy photos en route.

Now, we may’ve turned the corner on the next generation of consumer electronics devices—CE 3.0, as Kevin told me. The poorly executed Internet and walled garden TV content experiences of the last dozen years have given way to televisions with powerful hearts and souls in the form of chipsets specifically designed to provide exactly what consumers want on their TVs, when they want it, with a sufficiently good user interface to not impact the TV watching experience itself. Yankee Group forecasts 91 million connected devices in U.S. households by 2013. If Intel successfully executes on the roadmap Kevin laid out for me, I believe that number is dramatically low. Consumers have shown that they want Netflix on their TVs, that they want Hulu on their TVs. Intel's architecture is ideally suited to provide these types of capabilities via their widget architecture, particularly in partnership with Yahoo. Soon, I expect to create my own personalized walled garden using widgets from Intel's and Yahoo's partners, and hope to have an experience replicating that of Apple's App Store, of Nokia's Ovi Store, of the Android Market, of BlackBerry's App World. Combined with DLNA widgets enabling me to access my content whenever, wherever? We're talking serious nirvana.

As Intel showed with the introduction of Canmore last year, and Sodaville this week, they're working diligently to provide a platform delivering applications (such as Flash-based widgets) of unique interest to individual consumers. I appreciate Kevin's time and insight, and eagerly look forward to what the living room holds over the next couple of years for platforms based on Intel hardware and widget software, enabling each of us to get the TV we want, when we want, how we want.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

R.I.P. Rosemary Stasek

I was saddened today to receive the following note about the untimely passing of Rosemary Stasek. Our paths crossed all too briefly during our time together at WebTV, before she went on to bigger and better things as mayor of Mountain View, and ultimately her move to Kabul a few years ago. Rosemary was a woman who believed she could do more than a little bit to change the world--in particular, to improve the lives of Afghan women. ...a little help, her charity, will hopefully live on to continue and honor her work.

So, if you wonder why flags are at half-staff in Mountain View this weekend, please think of Rosemary and her family.

Rosemary, we'll miss you...you truly were the change you wished to see in the world...


--------------------
Subject: Passing of Rosemary Stasek

I am very sad to have to report that Rosemary past away very suddenly on Thursday night, 24 September in Kabul due to complications linked to her illness. Some of you may not have know that Rosemary was diagnosed with being in the early stages of MS in March this year

For those that do not know me, my name is Morne du Preez, Rosemary's husband of the past 2 years and four months. Rosemary and I met in Kabul and married 6 months therafter, shortly after Rosemary became ill. Some of the happiest years of my life and a time in my life that I will never ever forget.

My apologies for sending out this message by Facebook, but Rosemary had so many friends all across the world and to be able to try and contact every person individually would be impossible.

Arrangements are being for repatriation to the US and we intend to have funeral arrangements in the next few days for a funeral in Rosemary's hometown of McAdoo, PA. Details will be made available.

I would like to encourage friends and family of Rosemary to visit the newly put up tribute blog for Rosemary to add their memories of this special special lady we have all lost.

www.stasektribute.com

Decisions are yet to be made regarding the future of A Little Help, Rosemary's NGO in Afghanistan, but for now I have fantastic support from the young Afghan ladies who have been assisting Rosemary in Kabul and the ongoing projects will continue at this time.

Rosemary was such a fantastic partner and from the day we met I fell in love with her and wanted her by my side for the rest of my days.

I wish to thank everybody for the emails, and calls and ask that you keep Rosemary's parents, Andrew and Patricia Stasek and family and friends in your prayers during this tough time.

Andrew and Patricia can be contacted on email:

astasek@ptd.net

Mail can be sent to:

241 W. Blaine street
McAdoo
PA
18237


Thank you,


Morne du Preez

Monday, September 14, 2009

IEEE-CNSV September Meeting

Just a quick reminder that the IEEE-CNSV's first meeting of the fall is tomorrow night (15 September) at the usual time and place--7 p.m. at KeyPoint Credit Union in Santa Clara. Special interest groups will meet at 6 p.m. More details on the meeting can be found here.

China Musings, Day Five (1 September)

I started today in first gear. Er, second...no one uses first in China. Right. The good news is, the room at the Grand Metro Park lived up to the hotel’s five star ranking in just about every aspect. The only downside is that in calling their beds firm, they mean firm. As in, sleeping on a box spring, which my neck didn’t particularly like. I spent the first couple of hours of the morning walking around with one flap down. Where’s Jeffrey Leonard when you need him?

After a quick buffet breakfast, we loaded up the bus and moved to Beverly. Hills, that is. No, wait...we moved to yet another new development--Suzhou Science & Technology Town (SSTT). The bus toured the expansive industrial park before arriving at our meeting location, a brand-spanking new office building, one of dozens sprinkled throughout the park. And, again, when I say “industrial park”, I don’t mean the low-rise stuff we have in the States. I mean an enormous number of very impressive-looking high-rises just waiting to be filled by industrious folks hoping to add to the local GDP. The education-cum-employment cycle here is pretty astounding. In the U.S., we often hear anecdotes about how China and India are churning out engineers and other technical graduates at a rate that leaves our own levels in the dust. Well, based on the numbers we’ve heard and what I’ve seen over the past couple days, I can confirm that--we’re getting our asses kicked. Part of it is the sheer numbers of college-age students; part of it is the importance that parents here put on their child’s (and yes, it’s almost always a sole child, based on the one-child-per-family policy) education; part of it is on the government’s unabated pace construction of schools at all levels; and, frankly, part of it is China’s desire to become the number one country in the world, to be recognized up with (and to eventually surpass) where the U.S. is today.

On our way in and out of the SSTT, we passed a newly-occupied building with a WebEx sign on it, which was pretty cool--a Cisco outpost, this far from home. During our meeting, we also learned that companies like Motorola, Siemens, and Philips were already here, among many others. The competition to attract investment is pretty insane--if I were to form a company in the Suzhou region, I’d be hard-pressed to determine where to do so. Suzhou Wuzhong is freakin’ GORGEOUS, looking like something off of a Hollywood set...Wisteria Lane West, if you will. SIP has the attraction of 15 years of operation under its belt, with a remarkable track record of success and continued input from the Singapore side, which I have to believe can only be beneficial to the cause. And, SSTT looks to be on the same success path as the others.

So, how’s a guy to decide where to put a company, either a China outpost of a foreign firm, or an actual Chinese company? Each of the places we’ve been, we’ve heard about tax breaks, free land and office space, cheap or free administrative support, etc. The problem is, I can put all this stuff into a spreadsheet to see who wins on paper, but that’s a one-dimensional look at the matter. How to really determine who has the best mix of ingredients to enable a company to be successful? Maybe it’s as simple as determining where you as CEO want to live, then siting the company there--that happens a ton in the U.S., so maybe that’s the way to play it over here, too. Frankly, I doubt it, as I’d think that certain regions would do a better job on software, or chip design, or outsourcing, or solar (which EVERYONE over here claims to be experts on), so maybe it’s just a case of continuing to ask a ton of questions--I know how I’d go about deciding on choosing Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, et.al., so perhaps the math translates fairly similarly here.

Rolling out of SSTT on our way back downtown, we passed the same rock formations (buttes?) that’s we’d passed on the way in. This time, we saw a handful of climbers out for their late morning exercise. Very cool. I’ve heard that Suzhou is the “Venice of the West”, with canals and character a plenty. We certainly haven’t seen that so far in our visits to high tech areas of various ages (infant to teen), so it’s at least good to see something aged--if not canals, at least really cool rocks.

Unless, uh, they just built those, too.

No canals on our way into downtown for our pre-luncheon meeting with one of the senior government officials in Suzhou. My Chinese-American colleagues have been helping me try to understand the structure of provincial and local government here, but it’s tough. I’m used to governments at the federal, state, county, and local levels. Here, it’s quite a bit different. Below the federal government sits the provincial government (little different than us), but then you move to the city level, and finally the county level. That’s right--cities are larger than counties. To make matters even more confusing, China also has four regions (districts? cities?) that are autonomous--Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing (where we head on Sunday). Today, we met with Mr. Cao, the Executive Vice Mayor of the Suzhou City Government. Cities here are governed somewhat like corporations, where the mayor is similar to the chairman of the board, and the multiple vice mayors are like board members, the Executive Vice Mayor being the topmost.

When we arrived at the hotel where our meeting and luncheon were being held, we were ushered into a room with two luxurious chairs at the front of the room, with three rows of six overstuffed chairs apiece on each opposite side, facing one another. The UCGEC contingent was seated on the left side of the room (as you enter); the right side was reserved for the local contingent. We stood in front of our seats according to where our name tags indicated; shortly afterwards, Mr. Cao and his staff arrived. After a very brief series of nods and smiles, we all took our assigned seats, in chairs which can be best described as “comfy”.

No shrubbery, though.

Mr. Cao delivered a series of remarks; Jessica Zhang, who led the UCGEC delegation for this part of the trip, translated for us--thankfully. The SSTT meeting had consisted of a series of presentations delivered entirely in Mandarin, making the time block pretty much worthless for the three of us who don’t speak Mandarin. Word to the wise--if you’re hosting a delegation from a foreign country, ensure availability of both time and personnel for translation. Otherwise, you’ve reflected very poorly on yourselves, as well as made it very difficult for the non-local speakers to consider investing--if you can’t provide translation support for a 90-minute meeting, I have to question your ability to provide other necessary support functions to a foreign-backed startup.

After Mr. Cao and Jessica Zhang delivered their respective remarks, Mr. Cao opened the floor to questions. The first few were posed in Mandarin; again, Jessica summarized both the questions and Mr. Cao’s answers. He then asked if any of the English speakers had any questions; never one to shy away from a query, I asked Mr. Cao the question I’d been pondering--with each investment area painting such a rosy picture of opportunities and upside, how was a guy like me, with no local language skills and no direct ties to any of the local areas, to evaluate my options and choose the location with best potential for success?

Mr. Cao responded as I expected--that each area had its own strengths; that each area had its own attractive package of financial incentives; and that each area had a team of experts available to work with each of us to determine the best possible offering to meet our needs. His answer came across as both legitimate and extremely sincere, but I still wasn’t any closer to figuring out which of the three Suzhou-area parks we’d seen would be the best location for a Silicon Valley/China joint effort.

After a few more minutes of Q&A, and after a few last shots of audio and video from the news media covering the meeting, we adjourned for lunch. For the first time this week, we didn’t have a massive luncheon at a huge round table. Instead, we had a massive luncheon at a huge rectangular table. A sit-down lunch for 36? WAAAAY impressive.

Mr. Cao led off the luncheon with a wine toast; like our other toasts, we enjoyed (?) about a third of an ounce of wine in a cordial glass. Now on our third banquet where I couldn’t smell the wine in my glass (both due to lack of quantity and size/shape of glass), I decided I needed a proper glass of wine. I asked the SSTT lady sitting next to me if it would be possible to have a serving of wine in the big goblet in front of me--the one that I’d use as a wine glass. She immediately instructed the wine server to provide me a proper (~4 ounce) pour of wine. Sweet mystery of life...an actual Great Wall bouquet! No, not odor from the horde-repelling rampart--the Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon I’d been drinking (but not tasting) our previous two banquets. Sweeeet.

I think I ate less at this luncheon than I had at our previous two banquets. Maybe it was the rectangular table instead of the round one, but I didn’t feel sick from eating too much. I merely felt fat.

We thanked Mr. Cao and his staff for being such gracious hosts, then waddled onto the bus for the drive to Nanjing. After grazing for a couple hours, what better way to digest our meal than by sitting on our behinds for a few more hours?

The scenery on the way to Nanjing was pretty cool, with reasonable-sized mountains and lots of trees on the three-plus hour drive. As we entered Nanjing, Jessica filled us in on some of the city’s history. Best known in the West due to Iris Kang's The Rape of Nanking, Nanjing was the seat of six dynasties, and was the first capital of the Republic of China after its founding in 1912. Jessica went to college here, so she knew quite a bit about the city; after two days spent in largely brand new developments, arriving in a city with some actual history (and five million residents) was extremely refreshing. Nanjing was loud, crowded, developed, and old--characteristics we hadn’t necessarily seen since leaving Shanghai almost 48 hours earlier.

After working our way through the challenging rush-hour traffic, we arrived at the four-star Ramada Plaza Hotel, where I had just enough time for a quick shower before heading out for dinner. While just about anything would’ve been a disappointment after our lodging the last two nights, the Ramada Plaza is a pretty big step down. But, the bed’s good (and not a box spring), the shower has good water pressure, and the air conditioning’s sufficiently cold. As Martin Mull used to say on Red Roof Inn commercials, “All hotel rooms look the same in the dark”. Generally, he’s right.

In keeping with the day’s four-sided theme, we enjoyed our dinner banquet at a large rectangular table. In a special treat, our hosts had arranged for traditional Chinese entertainment, including songs; instruments, including a flute, a violin, a lute, and a guy playing a tune on a piece of hollow balsa wood and a long string; and most impressively, a paper puppet show called The Tortoise and The Crane. Tonight, we were fortunate enough to have nearly an hour to walk around the center of Nanjing’s cultural and tourist area; the opportunity to walk off one of these huge meals was more than welcome. As we walked around the pedestrian-only area, we found the scenery to be beautiful, as well as extremely crowded, with almost no Westerners around, which was nice. The only downside is that the lack of Westerners also translated into a lack of diet colas--after no caffeine whatsoever yesterday, I spent much of the day yearning for a Pepsi Max or a Coke Zero. Sadly, in the two dozen locations I checked after dinner, not a single one had diet soft drinks, although regular Coke was in plentiful supply.

We hopped back on the bus for the short ride back to the hotel; before arriving, we were told what time we needed to be at the bus for departure tomorrow morning. I asked if anyone wanted to take a post-dinner walk (so I could find a supply of diet cola), but everyone opted out. I popped over to the concierge to ask where I could find a Lawson’s or a Family Mart--two chain stores (similar to 7-Eleven) which I’d seen plenty of as we drove through Nanjing. After more than a dozen years of doing business in Asia, I’m pretty good at boiling my questions down to tight sound bites, but even my simplified request for a 24-hour store met with blank stares from the concierge. And from the bellman. And from the valet. And from the front desk. Finally, they called the assistant manager, who arrived promptly. She spoke enough English to inform me that if I simply crossed the street and walked to the right for about five minutes, I’d come upon an all-night convenience store.

An aside. People often ask why I stay with Western chains (Marriott, Hyatt, Starwood, Hilton) when I travel internationally, claiming that I’m robbing myself of immersion in the local culture by not patronizing hotels geared towards locals. The above story is exactly why--when I’m traveling on business, efficiency is vital. If I need to repeat a question a half-dozen times to a half-dozen people, I’m wasting time. U.S.-flagged hotels have staff with better English skills, and are better-equipped to handle the needs of American business travelers. No offense intended, and no opinion or judgment passed. That’s merely a fact.

I headed out the door, walked about 50 yards to my right, then prepared to cross the street. At this point, I realized that walking in Nanjing seemed different than walking in Shanghai or Beijing. In those cities, I expect to get hit while crossing the street. The problem is, in Nanjing, I also expected to get hit, but had no freakin' idea from which direction or by what form of conveyance. In a walk that couldn't have been more than 200 yards, and which required crossing a single intersection, I must've had traffic come at me from eleven different directions, in the form of bicycles, motorized trikes (tuk-tuks, if you've been to India), scooters, cars, vans, trucks, and buses.

But it was worth it--a six-pack of Pepsi Max for my troubles. Breakfast tomorrow will be good.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

China Musings, Day Four (31 August)

Up and at ‘em...day two of the delegation kicks off with breakfast, then meetings with, uh, somebody about solar, I think.

After a quick shower, I headed down for breakfast. We met as a group, then walked into the attached building next door to the guest house, where we headed upstairs to a private room with a large round table. Here, we met the president of Best Solar. Since I’ve had very limited exposure to solar, I wasn’t familiar with Best, but by the end of the day, I certainly would be--these guys have been on a fast track. Dr. Fang has grown the company an immense amount in its short lifespan...generating numbers which would make most VCs salivate, although it’s tough to determine exactly how much private capital was invested up front, how much government support was received, when they’ll be profitable, etc. Regardless, the Best Solar team seems to be doing a TON of stuff right.

Breakfast was enormous. Tasty, but enormous. Note to self: contemplate eating no more than two Egg McMuffins’ worth tomorrow morning...although converting Chinese breakfast banquet helpings into McDonald’s helpings might be challenging. Afterwards, we headed downstairs and on to the bus--this one smaller than last night’s, and hopefully less bouncy. The ride from Shanghai had contained nearly as much up and down as forward, so much so that a screw rattled out of the bottom of my HackBook. For those of you who’ve thought for years that I had a screw loose, you’re almost right--it’s not loose, it’s missing.

By light of day, the guest house is a non-descript building which you likely wouldn’t recognize as a lodging facility. Then again, maybe there was a huge sign written in Chinese, but I certainly didn’t see one...and if I did, I sure wouldn’t know what it said. As we pulled away from the guest house, one of our government hosts began a narrative of what we were seeing as we drove around the Suzhou Wuzhong Economic Development Zone (SWEDZ) International Education Park. I can describe the park as nothing short of stupendous. Picture an industrial park consisting of more than a dozen new sites spread out in extended campus-like fashion, each site housing a different educational institution--14 universities and institutes in all, with thousands of students enrolled at each one.

We ended the bus ride at the SWEDZ building, where we toured their showroom, viewing the largest model city I’ve ever seen in my life. As a kid who spent much of my childhood building stuff with Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs, I had some very serious envy. Resisting the urge to jump the barrier to do my best Godzilla impersonation was tough, too, but I managed. The presenter did a solid job delivering her pitch in English, as well as answering our questions.

At the conclusion of our tour, we hopped into an elevator and headed up, stepping out into the Best Solar headquarters office. We spent about 90 minutes with Dr. Fang and his staff, learning more about Best and exploring opportunities for UCGEC members to partner with Best on projects. We also toured one of their brand new factory floors, which was absolutely spotless. From there we headed to lunch, which I wasn’t really looking forward to (if you can believe that), as I was still working on digesting my huge breakfast.

After hopping back on the bus for the short ride back to the guest house, we passed a ton of new construction, both commercial and residential. The architecture of the commercial buildings in SWEDZ is impressive--somebody’s earning their design fees.

Back at the guest house, we were ushered into a large banquet room which had the largest round table I’ve ever seen. On our way out from breakfast, I’d commented to Jiong Ma that they were setting up a stage for him to dance on. Lo and behold, that was our lunch table. We enjoyed our second delicious but massive meal of the day, before running back to our rooms to grab our bags and hop on the big bouncy bus for the ride to...uh...wherever. I’d heard we were going to Suzhou, but I thought we were already in Suzhou. Whatever...onto the bus we went.

Less than a half-hour later, we pulled into the Grand Metro Park Hotel Suzhou--a five-star hotel. I joked that since there was no way that the accommodations could be this great every night of the trip, that the trip should’ve been organized with the Grand Metro Park and the SWEDZ guest house as the final two nights, rather than the first two nights. Talk about setting the bar high!

We had just enough time to drop our bags in our rooms, then hop back on the bus for the ride to the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP). Sadly, the term “industrial park” as we think of it in the U.S. can’t even begin to do justice to SIP. Think of an extremely successful brand new city built from the ground up over the last 15 years, and you’ll begin to understand SIP.

As we had at SWEDZ, we began with a narrative walk-through of the showcase displays, including a scale model of the park. This type of dog and pony show must be common here; the closest comparison I can make to the U.S. is the executive briefing center concept, the difference here being that they’re not selling widgets, they’re selling investment.

And wow, what investment SIP has enjoyed--more than 12,000 companies are located there, more than 3,000 of which are foreign-owned. Average annual economic growth has been 30%, paid the equivalent of nearly $15 billion in taxes, and enjoyed foreign investment of nearly $16 billion.

Wow.

Guess what we did next? On to the bus, then a huge meal. Holy crap...if this keeps up, I might not make the end of the week, much less the end of the trip.

At dinner, our places were set similarly to how they’d been at lunch, with three glasses of various sizes. At lunch, the wait staff immediately removed all but the middle-sized goblet as soon as we sat down. At dinner, all three glasses remained, and were used--the small, cordial-sized one for a splash of red wine (maybe a quarter of an ounce...a third of an ounce, tops); the small goblet for water or cold tea; and the large goblet for juice or soft drinks. When our hosts welcomed us with a brief speech, we toasted with the cordial glasses, downing our wee amount of wine in a single shot. The challenge here is that a cordial glass isn’t nearly large enough to enjoy any of the wine’s bouquet. The great news is that the very attentive waitresses were there to fill up my wine glass each time I emptied it; being able to empty the glass with a single sip made for frequent refills. The waitresses who’d drawn wine duty were always ready to pounce whenever anyone emptied their glass. I felt a little bit like walking through a crowded parking lot with my keys in my hand, with an eager driver matching their speed to my walking pace in hopes of landing a coveted parking spot. I slow down, they slow down. I speed up, they speed up. So too was it with the wine refill process. I got to the point that I’d pick up my glass as if to empty it (which, again, only took a single sip), then pause just as the waitress had engaged first gear to rush to refill my glass.

Wait, second gear. They don’t use first here.

I can comfortably say that I’ve never drunk more glasses of wine than I did tonight. Of course, at a dribble of wine per glass, I think I may’ve consumed about 2 1/2 normal glasses of wine, but who’s counting? I would’ve been thrilled with a proper-sized glass of wine, but didn’t want to cause an international incident. Maybe tomorrow...

Monday, September 7, 2009

China Musings, Day Three (30 August)

I woke up feeling a bit melancholy this morning. When I was a kid, the Sears Tower was the tallest building in the world.

Then it got weird.

As tourism bureaux began to understand the economic benefits of professionally promoting themselves to visitors around the world, they grasped the recognition (and revenue) that comes along with having the planet’s tallest building; as a result of that still-ongoing race, the landscape is now cluttered with tall structures of all sorts. The guys who measure such things now have a bunch of categories--tallest building including antennae, tallest building including spires, highest occupied floor, highest minaret, highest operable flush toilet, etc. While in the 100th floor observatory last night, we were in the highest observation deck in the world, in the building with the world's highest occupied floor and highest roof. When the Burj opens in Dubai later this year, the SWFC will lose the latter two titles, but its observatory will remain the highest in the world.

The moment a “tallest” building is announced, an even taller one is being contemplated somewhere on earth; despite this, these monoliths still assume their rightful place as the signature of any city. I expect that when visitors come to any city with a signature skyscraper, they’ll flock to it, just as structures like the Empire State Building, Taipei 101, Transamerica Tower, and Petronas Towers have served as tourist beacons--not unlike the cathedrals of old. If you’ve been to Chartres or Notre Dame du Paris, you understand how awestruck medieval pilgrims must’ve been as they approached the church. In the new millennium, awesome feats of structural engineering in the form of skyscrapers have generally replaced houses of worship as the main tourist destination in a given city--but, old or new, they still contribute to the local economy!

Even if a structure envisioned as “tallest” doesn’t end up being so in the end, that’s okay. Seriously. While the Sears Tower was long-ago surpassed as the world’s tallest building, it survives as an unforgettable symbol of The City of Broad Shoulders, the place where the world’s first skyscraper was built. Even a name change can’t alter that.

Whatchoo talkin’ about, Willis?

Anyway, a good breakfast fueled us up for another run on the subway, this time to the Yatai Xinyang Fashion and Gift Market at the Science & Technology Museum stop. Last fall, a number of us spent some time here, searching out bargains of various types. I’ll never forget a member of our crowd who bought a knockoff iPod Nano; while he knew that he wasn’t getting a genuine device, he was more than a little annoyed that what he thought was a 4 GB device was in fact a 1 GB device...which I in turn nicknamed the iPod NoNo.

Today, our trip was all about phones--the moment we stepped out of the subway gates, we were accosted by a guy who grabbed our arms, asking if we wanted iPhones. We told him repeatedly that we had no interest, since we were really looking for clothes, but after about 10 minutes of walking around (and passing both the same iPod NoNo guy and the lady I’d literally dragged down the street after attaching herself to my wrist), we finally bowed to the badgering, agreeing to take a look at the guy’s iPhones.

Make no mistake--these were “iPhones”. They had a tremendous selection of phones of all types--”iPhone”, “BlackBerry”, “Nokia”, “Motorola”, “Samsung”, “LG”, “Sony Ericsson”, and many more. Most impressive of the “iPhone” lineup was the slimmed-down version they offered--while each of the “iPhones” they showed us was at least half-again as thick as an iPhone, they also offered a version about one-third shorter and narrower than the iPhone...an “iPhone Lite”, if you will. Impressive that they were able to do that type of integration on a level Steve Jobs couldn’t.

Or, not so much. The touchscreens were shoddy, the software slow, the casings not well-built, no way to trust that the advertised capacity was accurate, no simple way to load English software onto the phone, yadda, yadda, yadda. I can’t believe that foreigners would actually buy these things as anything other than a science fair project. Yeesh.

After finishing our research, we headed back to the hotel to clean up and check out, then over to the Hua Ting Hotel, where this afternoon’s event was held. Similar to a number of professional societies I belong to in the U.S. (IEEE, SD Forum, et.al.), the Shanghai Chinese Industrial Professional Society has monthly member meetings. This month, SCIPA invited the US-China Green Energy Council (UCGEC) to collaborate on an afternoon-long meeting, followed by a dinner. Dr. Jiong Ma (Peking University), Xiaofeng Zhang (PG&E), Dr. Jeff Chapman (EnDimensions), and Kevin Gao (CA Solar) all presented from the UCGEC side; Dr. Zhu Li (Chair of SCIPA), Dr. Hou Xiaoyuan (Fudan University), and Dr. Ma Zhongguan (Shanghai University) presented from the SCIPA side. Thankfully, we had a translator who helped the three of us who don’t speak Mandarin understand what the heck was going on.

Despite the differences in native language and approach to ambient air circulation, the meeting was little different than most chapter meetings I’ve attended in America--95% of the attendees were engineers, 80% were male, and the question and answer session became real technical, real quick. Despite the fact that my core business isn’t solar, I still picked up some interesting nuggets. I was surprised to learn that, despite the location of the Three Gorges Dam in western China, most if not all of its power is shipped to the east coast. Note to self: research parallels between Hetch Hetchy, Bureau of Los Angeles Aqueduct Power, and Three Gorges in terms of robber barons.

Also, the amount of solar radiation which could be potentially captured in Tibet is staggeringly high--but because the terrain is so rough, and its location so remote, that installation of massive amounts of solar capture in and transmission and distribution lines from Tibet just doesn’t make sense. Even more interesting, I learned that the vast majority of meters in China are pre-paid. Similar to buying a cell phone with a set amount of minutes, then refilling the SIM over the Internet, Chinese purchase meters with a set amount of energy, then refill them via a variety of mechanisms. While dramatically mitigating fraud risk, this almost totally removes the Chinese consumption component of what we consider the smart grid. I look at all the positive work being done on so many fronts around the world in terms of home-to-grid connectivity, and question whether there’s any play whatsoever here in China--something to further explore over the coming days.

After the seminar ended, we headed downstairs to an awesome buffet dinner. As we were wrapping up, I raved to one of the local SCIPA members about how impressive the hotel was. Lo and behold, it used to be the Sheraton. Who knew?

After a reasonable amount of wrangling, we managed to get the entire team onto the bus for the journey to...uh....wherever. The itinerary we received was extremely light on where we were going and who we were seeing (and written in Chinese), so we basically played follow the leader. Our hosts, who’d come down (from wherever we were going) to pick us up, told us to settle in for a ~90-minute ride to our destination, Suzhou. We also learned that we’d be staying in a government-run guest house, then escorted to various government buildings tomorrow. “Government-run guest house” makes me think about...oh...Solzhenitsyn, Bernie Madoff, some of John Daly’s ex-wives, you name it. This was gonna be interesting.

The ride here was mostly freeway, over roads in much better shape than the U.S. Interstate System. I could’ve just as easily been on I-80 between San Francisco and Sacramento--once outside Shanghai, residential high-rises and light industrial buildings gave way to dark of night, similar to the run over the Carquinez Bridge on the way to Sacramento. When we exited the freeway, with Suzhou directly in front of us, I thought we were here. Well, we weren’t...after a few minutes’ drive on decent-sized (and abandoned, since it’s Sunday night) surface streets, we hopped onto a different freeway to continue our journey. Odd. I remember when I was a kid, before I-55 was complete between Chicago and St. Louis...at various points along the way, we’d detour onto the old Route 66 (getting our kicks the entire time) for portions of the journey. Just as I-55 was eventually completed, I’d expect that the journey we made will be a freeway-to-freeway connection, likely by the time I return.

After traveling past massive numbers of massive apartment buildings at various stages of completion, as well as a good-sized city in and of itself, we popped off the freeway, entering an area that looked like the newest subdivision in Reston (or any other centrally-planned community with money). Yow...gorgeous townhomes, really high-end apartments, stunningly nice single family homes. Where the hell are we? Wisteria Lane? Stepford?

We made a final left turn, pulling into a driveway where the security guard greeted us with a salute as he hastily raised the gate. We stopped in front of a brand new building whose purpose I couldn’t immediately determine, but we were here...although I still had no idea where the hell “here” was. Off the bus we piled...dead ahead, a couple of guys dressed in bellman uniforms hustled over with big luggage carts to greet us. Okay...they must be coming from the guest house. They schlepped our gear from the bus to the carts; our hosts asked us to follow them to the guest house.

A minor moment of trepidation--is this where we get our RFID implants? Should I not have packed an NSA t-shirt? Will they have Diet Pepsi in the bar?

We stepped into the lobby of what turns out to be one of the world’s most exclusive boutique hotels--two dozen rooms, invite-only, as guests of the government, where your cash is no good at any price. Yeah, the keys were RFID, so yeah, they knew where we were, but what an UNBELIEVABLE property. We were each handed a key packet and shown to the elevator, and given our appointed meeting time for breakfast. I’ve been asking for more specifics on the agenda for days; since our schedule hasn’t been what I’d call well-detailed (or in English, for that matter), I’m slowly realizing that maybe I just need to follow the crowd. For business or pleasure, on every trip I’ve ever taken in my adult life, I’ve either been the one in charge, or at least one of the longer poles in the tent. (Heh, heh.) This is a new experience, so we’ll see how it goes in the morning.

When I walked into the room, I couldn’t believe my eyes--a spacious room on par with any top-tier property I’ve ever stayed at, anywhere in the world--Ritz, Four Seasons, Park Hyatt, you name it. A huge California King bed, a nice flat panel (where CCTV5’s Formula One broadcast from Spa Francorchamps began a few minutes after I walked into the room), a big bathroom with both a shower and a tub, and a balcony with a gorgeous, LED-illuminated view across what appears to be river. Wow. And, most importantly, a thermostat that when I turned it to 16C (60.8F), actually went to 16C.

Okay, I’m in. You had me at hello. Or, uh, ni hao.

Except for one minor problem--I had absolutely no idea where the hell I was. I walked over to the phone to see if the name and address of the property were listed; they didn’t appear to be, at least not in anything I could understand. A folio with a postcard, an envelope, or some note paper? Snake eyes. Maybe a “Menu” button on the remote control, so I could see my folio, in hopes I could see the name of the property? What am I, drunk? (Actually, no.) I’m a guest of the government...no folios. Heck, no menu button...not that I could tell, at least.

So, I've just finished ripping the room apart, going from the closet, to the TV stand, to the cocktail table, and ultimately to the bedside drawers (Woo-hoo! The Gideons haven’t been here!), where I mercifully found a souvenir shopping bag with the name “Suzhou Wuzhong Economic Development Zone”. Now that I knew where I was, I could go to sleep--an ironic change from years of waking up in hotel rooms and asking “Where the hell am I?”

Sunday, September 6, 2009

China Musings, Day Two (29 August)

Construction in Shanghai continues unabated. I mean, holy freakin’ crap. My last trip to Shanghai was about ten months ago. While a ton of new buildings have opened in the interim, the mad rush to complete multiple new subway lines looks pretty much the same as my last trip--frenetic--as does the typically massive amount of construction. When China decides they’re gonna do something, they do it. And, just as the building pace was ridiculous in the fall of 2006 on my last trip to Beijing (ahead of the Olympics), Shanghai is working 24x7 in advance of Expo 2010.

Anton and I spent the day as tourists today. Since my travel typically consists of getting into a city at night, having meetings throughout each day, and dinners each evening, I’ve experienced very few tourist sites, despite the number of cities and countries I’ve been fortunate enough to visit over the last two decades. Today was a pleasant change.

We started with the Catholic cathedral, the biggest and oldest Catholic church in Shanghai. The architecture was pretty simple compared to a lot of churches I’ve seen around the world, but it fit the mold for a cathedral--built in the shape of a cross, with high, arched ceilings, and a mix of random folks touring (us), as well as those enjoying a contemplative moment.

Next, we visited two other places of worship--Pacific Digital Mall and Best Buy. (Yes, I know I’m a heretic, and yes, I know I’m going to hell.) Pacific Digital Mall was the typical high-rise Asian technology mall--tons of vendors hawking their wares, with a large number of real products (such as HP, Lenovo, and Apple) at authorized resellers; a large number of gray market products (such as three-year old wireless access points whose boxes weren’t written in Chinese, and cell phones four and five generations old); and out-and-out fakes, both hardware and software. Since neither of us were looking to buy anything, this didn’t phase us a bit--we were there to see the state-of-the-art in Chinese consumer technology marketing, not to try to find a bargain. Aside from the knock-offs themselves, the key things that came off as cheap were the sales and marketing techniques. I’m used to Yodobashi Camera and Bic Camera in Tokyo, where young men and women yell through bullhorns from open to close, trying to entice you to check out their products.

(An aside--since I don’t speak Japanese, and I haven’t bothered to ask anyone who does, I can merely guess what it is they’re saying. And, my guess is that they’re saying “I’m a guy. I’m a guy with a bullhorn. I’m a guy with a bullhorn who wants you to come over here. I’m a guy with a bullhorn who wants you to come over here and check out my product. I’m a guy with a bullhorn who wants you to come over here and check out my product because it will provide me an increased sense of self-worth, even if you don’t buy anything.” If you’ve been there, and don’t speak Japanese, I’m pretty certain you know exactly what I’m talking about.)

But, marketing to Chinese consumers isn’t nearly that sophisticated. One of these days, I’ll get around to investigating more about the psychographics behind Chinese consumer marketing and branding. But, to the layman (and confirmed by multiple Chinese-American colleagues), purchase decisions are for the most part based on three criteria: price, price, and price.

Since we’d seen all we needed to at the technology mall, we headed a couple of blocks down the street to Best Buy Xujiahui--Richfield’s first foray into the Chinese market. Best Buy now has seven stores in Shanghai, but Xujiahui was the first. The store had everything you’d expect out of a flagship Best Buy store, including cutting edge flat-panel TVs, excellent demo rooms in the Magnolia Hi-Fi store-within-a-store, and a large Geek Squad area, reminiscent of one of Apple’s Genius Bars. They also carried items I didn’t expect, including Toto and Panasonic’s *awesome* high-tech toilet seats; water heaters from the Midwest’s own A.O. Smith; and an entire range of appliances from both well-known western brands as well as Chinese marques. After my annoyance at the lack of marketing sophistication and brand differentiation at the technology mall, Best Buy’s merchandising was refreshing--products were given space to breathe, were presented in an organized fashion, and were most importantly current. The Blue Shirts were a lot more clingy than I prefer salespeople to be, but knowing the effort that BBY puts into research and training, I can conclude that their clinginess is exactly what the doctor ordered for the local market. I’m curious whether each of the seven Shanghai stores has its own character based on demographic target (anyone remember Barry & Jill or Ray & Maria?), or if the stores are relatively cookie cutter. While most of the Blue Shirts speak survival English (similar to my taqueria Spanish), I really couldn’t dig into a conversation about store types, so that’s another note to self.

Another thought occurred while we were walking around. The difference between Best Buy in Shanghai and Fry’s in Silicon Valley? The sales people and cashiers working at Best Buy speak better English.

(One more aside...as you can tell from the photo, Anton and I truly didn't need anything at Best Buy.)

After leaving BBY, we hopped in a cab to the Jade Buddha Temple. I mentioned a few things on our ride over--shifting patterns, taxi costs, and general traffic chaos.

First off, I’m always amazed by the way that Chinese drivers go through the gears. Cars and buses almost always (>99.999% of the time) start in second gear. First appears to be vestigial, the appendix of Chinese manual transmissions. Seriously, I think that first is used only when driving vertically. Second is used to get rolling, at which time drivers cycle through the gears to get into the highest gear as soon as possible, damn the (non-existent) torque band. I need to find a Chinese drivers education teacher (or perhaps a mechanic) to have a philosophical discussion on the topic...ideally over a Tsing Tao or three.

Secondly, Taxi costs are mind-bogglingly low. Last year in Shanghai, I hopped in a cab to head out to meet a colleague; unfortunately, the location we were supposed to meet was translated for me incorrectly, so I ended up on a less-than-excellent-adventure through much of Shanghai. An hour and twenty minutes later, after multiple phone calls to try to figure out exactly where the heck I was trying to get to, I finally reached the correct destination. A ride like that in any U.S. city, covering the distance I did, would’ve easily run me $100-150. In Shanghai? Less than ¥150...not even twenty bucks. I swear that the guy burned that much gas while running me around, much less the wear and tear on his transmission from all those second gear starts. Gas prices here are pretty similar to U.S. gas prices, so all I can figure is that taxi drivers must receive some type of gas subsidy...a good question to ask while I’m here.

Finally, I’m forever amazed at the way vehicular, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic works here in China. Although I haven’t spent time in the Third World, I’ve seen some pretty crazy driving styles in places like Mexico City and Madrid. And, uh, Boston. But, China is its own beast. All I can compare it to is Wi-Fi transmission--CSMA/CA, Carrier Sense Multiple Access with Collision Avoidance. (Yes, I know I’m a geek.) Just as Wi-Fi radios utilize the shared medium of an access point by throwing bits into the air with a defined but random mechanism, so too does Chinese traffic manage to live, thrive, and survive. If you haven’t been here, on your first trip you’ll watch slack-jawed at the near-crashes you’ll see on every corner, in the middle of each street, on the expressways, and even on sidewalks. Even if you’ve been here before, being a passenger is a little like an e-ticket ride at the Mouse House. And, since we don’t do a terribly great job of drivers education in the U.S., I can only imagine how the Brits and Germans feel when they’re here, since their drivers ed programs are dramatically more rigorous than America’s, and about as diametrically opposite to Chinese driving as one could imagine.

By the way, the Jade Buddha Temple was cool.

Next, our plan was to head to the People’s Park and People’s Square, which were too far to reach on foot. I suggested that we hoof it over to the subway, rather than taking the easy way out by hopping in a cab. On the way to the subway stop, we figured we’d stop to pick up something to eat. As we reached the Kerry Everbright City area, I realized that the McDonald’s dead-ahead of us was where I’d eaten breakfast each morning on my previous trip to Shanghai. Anton was jonesing for a Big Mac, so Mickey D’s it was. As multi-cultural as Xin Tian Di was last night, the McDonald’s was exactly what I expected--packed full of Chinese, with the two of us the only Westerners in the joint. We’d’ve experienced the same thing if we’d gone across the street to the KFC, the single most popular fast food chain in China, so I didn’t feel too guilty about lunching at Ronald’s...although I would’ve preferred a street gyro of random meat, which we weren’t lucky enough to stumble across.

After wolfing down some food, we headed into the subway--Shanghai’s best bargain, even more so than taxis. Since Shanghai’s tube charges based on distance traveled, you purchase tickets accordingly. So, I punched our destination station into the ticket machine (which had a very well-defined English option); the screen showed a charge of ¥3 per ticket, or about 45¢ each. Sweet.

Arriving at the People’s Square station a few minutes later, I felt like I was at Shinjuku Station in Tokyo--the main passageway level was new, clean, and extremely well-lit. Unfortunately, that was the highlight of the stop. Not to denigrate Shanghai, but having hung out at Tiananmen Square, I was a little bit underwhelmed.

Back into the subway we went, heading across the river to Pudong and the brand spanking new Shanghai World Financial Centre. ¥4 each later, we reached the first stop in Pudong, where we popped up into a pedestrian’s nightmare--based on the footprint of the construction field, it seemed like the city was building an entire subterranean universe, but it was simply the pace of Shanghai, continuing unabated.

The good news was, we could see the SWFC building from where we were. (Then again, at 100 stories high, one could see it from well beyond the edges of Shanghai if the sky ever cleared enough.) The bad news was, the path from A to B required detouring through the entire alphabet to get there, but we eventually made it. Crossing an eight-lane one-way street as our final test made reaching our destination even more worthwhile.

Up we went to the 100th floor observatory, paying ¥150 for the privilege. I should probably do the math on the cost traveled per meter in a vertical direction (at the SWFC) versus horizontal direction (on the tube), but I don’t think that’s a very fair comparison. Might be neat, though. Scary, too. Not at all scary was the observatory, from where we watched the lights of the city come alive. We headed up at dusk; when the city's lights came on at 7 p.m., we were treated to a show that got brighter by the minute.

We rolled out of the observatory, heading southeast to a different subway stop--one we could reach without running a gauntlet. Another ¥4 ride got us back to within a couple of blocks of the hotel. Transferring between the #2 and #1 subway lines at People’s Square, I was once again reminded of Shinjuku Station, this time even more so--the distance required to go between the two lines is roughly equal to the distance required to transfer between a regular train and the Narita Express at Shinjuku, the benefit here being that we weren’t lugging suitcases.

When we arrived back at the hotel, Anton decided to crash, while I headed up here to the executive lounge. I’m pretty jaded as travel value goes, but I have to rave about the Marriott Courtyard Xujiahui. When we walked into the hotel yesterday, they whisked us upstairs to the executive floor, to check us in at the concierge desk in the executive lounge. I can’t think of a single Courtyard in North America which has an executive lounge, much less one open till midnight every night of the week, including Saturday. On weekend stays, I’m used to rolling into a hotel on Friday night, to be told that the lounge is closed till Sunday night or Monday morning, and being handed coupons for breakfast each weekend morning. But, it’s not the breakfast that’s important to me--it’s the ability to hang out in the lounge and decompress, enjoying the space so lacking in the typical hotel room (even though the rooms here are great). A huge thumbs up to the Courtyard Xujiahui, Marriott’s 800th Courtyard when it opened earlier this year.

Today, we did some very un-serious shopping, for mostly genuine items. Tomorrow, we head out to do a little more browsing, this time for items which might not be the real deal. Afterwards, the UCGEC trip officially begins with a seminar hosted by the Shanghai Chemical Industrial Professional Association. More then...

China Musings, Day One (28 August)

Sunday the 30th kicks off the US-China Green Energy Council’s trade delegation to China. Over ten days, eight of us will visit Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing, Chengdu, Chongqing, and Xi’an; eight other USGEC members will join for selected portions of the trip. As one of only two American-born delegates, this should make for a fantastic exploratory experience, as we examine investment, operational, and partnership opportunities with dozens of Chinese organizations and local governments; we’ll also be attending a high-profile green energy trade show in Chengdu, which I expect to be an eye-opener. I’ve never done a trip travelogue before, but I’ve decided to do one here to both capture my own thoughts on my first experience as part of a foreign trade delegation, as well as to share business- and market-related thoughts on a number of Chinese cities that are new to me.

My colleague Anton Wahlman and I decided to come in a day early, in an attempt to get an early start on adapting to the time change. This is Anton’s first trip to China; I’ve been here a half-dozen times, but China never gets old for me. When we arrived, we were met at the airport by an American friend of Anton’s who now lives in Shanghai; rather than fighting Friday night rush hour traffic, we hopped on the magnetic levitation train from the airport to get into town. Although I’ve taken a ton of airport trains, this was my first time on the Shanghai maglev. As totally freakin’ cool as it was, I felt a little bit like getting off the Shinkansen at Shin-Osaka--any thoughts about actually arriving in the center of town soon disappear when you realize that you still have a decent drive or subway ride ahead of you. Ugh. Into traffic we dove; an hour-plus later, we finally reached the hotel.

After showering to de-grime, we headed over to Din Tai Fung in Xin Tian Di for xiao long bao. Sure, it’s formulaic, but starting a trip to Shanghai with the local speciality can’t be beat. After dinner, we sat down at an outdoor cafe to enjoy a nightcap. While the vibe in Xin Tian Di is fantastic, I must admit that it’s a little disconcerting to see so many Westerners out and about. Shanghai is a tremendously cosmopolitan city, but the high percentage of non-Asians made me feel like I was in Hong Kong or Singapore, not on the Chinese mainland--a tradeoff I’m certain I’d relish if I were living in Shanghai, but a little disconcerting nonetheless. Well after midnight, we called it an evening, as we were looking forward to playing tourists on our one full day to ourselves.