The great Chinese philosopher Laozi (aka Lao-tzu) once remarked that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. With my recent business trip to China, I feel that I have a blog posting of a thousand miles ready to burst onto my keyboard but for everyone’s sanity, I’ve chosen to deconstruct my experience and pick a few highlights that I’ll share over a couple of postings. This first one is on the people I’ve met.

A particularly enterprising taxi driver in Shanghai

This was my third trip to China. Feeling rather confident on this particular visit, I told my hosts that I’d be taking the famous Shanghai airport magnetically levitated MAGLEV highspeed train – a marvel of modern engineering and mathematical modeling - from the airport to the LongYang Road subway station and I’d meet them there. Mastering forms of public transportation is always a goal for me when I travel and I felt I was ready. I dutifully followed the signs at Shanghai’s cavernous Pudong airport but at one point, an official looking gentleman informed me in a very official sounding way that the MAGLEV was down and may not be operational for another hour or so. Bummer … the MAGLEV goes over 400 kph and is always an amazing way to start a Shanghai visit. So he directs me to the official taxi line … nothing outwardly suspicious, and I take an official Shanghai cab directly from the airport to the hotel. As we drive leisurely through the Pudong country side, two MAGLEV trains scream by in opposite directions.

About 40 minutes later, we get to the hotel using a fairly direct route.  I look at the meter, it reads 393 Yuan. I quickly do a mental calculation (divide by 6) and come to “little over $60” … ok seems fine … typical airport taxi prices in many cities. Keep the change. I’m handed an official hand written receipt. I check in and call my colleague and asked him how much the taxi typically costs. “On a busy day 150 Yuan at most!” Later on I show him the receipt and he informs me that it’s a restaurant receipt. All taxi receipts come out of these little printers in the car. So here’s a lesson for all of you. The Shanghai MAGLEV is particularly robust and has an excellent engineering and service record. It really is an engineering marvel.  Always go to the MAGLEV terminal and check the status yourself.  If you’re curious about how to develop control algorithms for your next MAGLEV project, check out the Maplesoft user story.

Dr. Yang Xin Tie, Chinese Super User, Northwest Polytechnical University, Xi’an

Dr. Yang (second from left) takes us on a personal tour of one of Xi’an’s old city (not to be confused with the site of the Terracotta Warriors). The other gentlemen are from our distributor in China, CCA of Shanghai.

The ancient city of Xi’an is most famous for the legendary Terra Cotta warriors – a thousands-strong clay army created to protect the first unifying emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (circ. 210 BCE). Many consider them an eighth marvel of the ancient world.  They don’t disappoint.

What also never disappoints me is the amazing recognition that Maple and more recently MapleSim have built around the world. Literally, if you visit a major technology or scientific center in most places of the world, you’re basically treated like a rock star. One such place was Northwest Polytechnical University in Xi’an – a very well known engineering school in China with a specialization in space, aeronautic, and vehicle research.  I was advised that I’d meet a Maple “super user” -- Dr. Yang Xin Tie of the School of Astronautics, a long time fan of the technology ever since he met Maple pioneer Michael Monagan during a visit to the renowned RWTH in Aachen Germany, in the early 90’s. Today, he spends his time evangelizing Maple to students and colleagues alike. He also boasts many research publications and a Chinese monograph on Maple-related topics.

Although Dr. Yang, in some sense, has been isolated from the primary stream of English Maplesoft dialog for over a decade, his work offers remarkable resonance with the emerging modeling and simulation focus of Maplesoft products. A lot of his recent work has been in the automatic derivation of model equations in fluid problems in aerodynamics. Although the topic is a cousin of the lumped parameter modeling that consumes MapleSim today, the basic motivation was common – save time in modeling, and develop more effective and efficient models.

One of Dr. Yang’s Powerpoint slides … I am told that it says “if you feel pain with mathematics, Maple is your cure”. Honest … I didn’t forward him our marketing literature before the presentation.

He also dusted off a couple of books from the 70’s. I couldn’t read the Chinese but inside were pages and pages of handwritten equations with each expression spanning multiple pages (yes … pages). Based on the structure of the terms (e.g. various combinations of sines and cosines wrapped in ordinary differential equations) I realized they were the equations of motions for complex mechanisms. What I was seeing was the result of months of work by a younger Dr. Yang to derive the equations and to archive the results. Imagine the task of deriving what took about 1000 pages of handwritten math and to do the checks to ensure correctness. I had never seen such work in the West. Perhaps they existed but with computers having been part of the toolchain for so long, I somehow doubt most ever attempted systems of that complexity without a computer. Of course, this is music to the ears of a MapleSim fan. Literally, I suspect that those two volumes representing months of toil can now be done by MapleSim in about half a day total. Dr. Yang was very happy.

Tariq Rahman, Vice President of Technology, Ericsson China, Beijing

Tariq (affectionately known as Bob) is a university friend of mine who is now Vice President of Technology for Ericsson in China. Yes, he cleaned up really well. He now has a lovely family and lives in a very North Americanesque house in the expat district of Beijing.  I had no intention of dragging Bob into my blog post as I tend to keep my professional and private lives well separated. He did, however, insist on chatting business and I discovered that Ericsson China is much more than a manufacturing and sales operation. A fair bit of genuine R&D is happening for a couple of very good reasons. First, the sheer amount of engineering and scientific research talent is staggering and for many of these bright young professionals, a job with a progressive company like Ericsson is a dream come true and for Ericsson, access to this brain power is key to global growth.
Second, it’s no secret that the Chinese government offers incentives to foreign companies to do as much as possible within China and now that spirit is evolving to include R&D. My reading of it is that China, like so many recently successful Asian economies have a long-view of things. Even with their mighty ranks, they see a limit to development based only on manufacturing. Creative design has to factor in sometime soon in order to make a real difference for the next generation. You can see this in their domestic car industry with rapidly improving models every year and with Ericsson, in this specific example. So what started as a nice dinner at an expat restaurant in the Central Business District of Beijing quickly became work and now I have to facilitate software evaluations for his group. Thanks Bob!

Miscellaneous tidbits

Ever wonder what donkey meat tastes like? Neither did I … but in China, you’re always greeted with a smile and food that shatters some fundamental axiom in your dietary worldview.

Lamprey tastes very good when deep-fried and served with a spicy sauce. But then, what doesn’t? Donkey was pretty non-descript.
In typical Chinese restaurants beer is by default, served warm. I am told that traditionally the Chinese have felt that ice-cold liquids are bad for one’s digestive system. You need to specifically ask for cold beer (or “beer with ice” as the locals refer to cold beer) and often, they run out.
When you tour the terracotta warriors and your officially licensed, government approved, tour guide says “you’re in luck, today they have the original farmer who discovered the first warrior in 1974 and he will sign this specially priced guide book for you,” don’t believe her. Although the overall cost is modest by North American or European standards, he is definitely not the original farmer.
A sure sign that you’re adjusting to a foreign destination is the amount of coins you bring back. Until you fully adjust to local prices, currency, and the counting words, it’s impossible to avoid pockets filling up with change. I am happy to report that on this, my third trip to China, my take home amount in change was zero! And I didn’t leave all the change as a tip at the hotel … I’m kind of cheap that way. It just means China is making more sense to me now.

To be continued…

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