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 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,, 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. 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 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?”

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