BeeBCamp – what is it?

BBC White CityWhat is it?

BeeBCamp is an internal, barcamp style ‘unconference‘ happening on Tuesday, 28th October from 9:30am in White City. It has been organised to bring 60 – 80 BBC employees from various locations around the UK together. Every one has an interest, a passion, a hobby or a particular area of expertise. Here, everyone gets the opportunity to share so that we can all learn from, and get to know, each other.

Why do we need one?

We don’t need one, but a few of us thought it would be a good idea. Face-to-face meetings in London W12 (White City, Media Centre, Broadcast Centre and TV Centre) account for so much of our time and attention that it can often feel like a bit of a hive. Those of us who work there can sometimes forget that the outlying ‘nations and regions’, including even other bits of London, can feel a bit more distant than they should. Whether it’s via internal blogs or external tools (blogs, Twitter, Yammer, Flickr), we may build relationships online but it’s hard to start them that way. We hoped that having a physical get-together, in which we put names to faces (and Twitter, etc, screen names) would be useful for everyone.

The idea is that bringing together people from Manchester, Cardiff, Glasgow, and other far flung and exotic places helps build relationships that continue long after the event. Meeting and learning from interesting and interested people is more fun than sitting down to hear from a small set of speakers. In short, an unconference sounded like a fun and useful thing to put together. Who knows what it will lead to?

Who organised it?

Well, the nature of an unconference is that all the participants play an important role in making it happen. But if you’re asking who facilitated and booked it, Philip Trippenbach, Mark Simpkins, David Hayward (College of Journalism) and I have all played our parts in making it happen. It was Philip’s brainchild, with David playing a huge role in organising the logistics of the food (which Simon Nelson sponsored) and the venue.

Why is it being held in White City?

It had to be somewhere, and White City has a lot of conference space. It’s reasonably central and since we happen to work near there it was the easiest place to organise it. Perhaps the next one will be somewhere else.

How does it work?

There’s no fixed agenda. The day will begin with an empty grid on a whiteboard, representing a few rooms and a series of 20 minute time slots which need to be filled by whoever wants to host a conversation about something. The first item of business at 10am is to fill the grid.

Leading up to the event, an internal wiki has outlined the structure of the day (starting time, slots and breaks) and listed the confirmed attendees. In the style of the Interesting 2008 attendees wiki, people have been sharing things they know about the other attendees, rather than just themselves. The wiki mainly consists of names and roles, with links to personal blogs, Twitter names, and other public presences where we might get to know each other better.

See you tomorrow

I’ll take notes about the externally bloggable stuff (of which there will hopefully be plenty) and feed back how it goes and what I learn.

Update: my notes from the first BeeBCamp

Paul Carr on ‘the fringe of web apps’

Here’s something to help you forget your woes during These Troubled Times. No need to risk censure by having fun in the sun, just read Paul Carr writing about his experiences on ‘The Fringe of Web Apps’.

Paul’s (sensible) approach to conferences is ignore the talks, especially the keynotes, and mingle. Here, he gets behind the scenes at FOWA expo in London:

I arrived late to the venue following a silly disagreement with some security guards over the fact that I didn’t actually have a conference pass. Fortunately I de-escalated the situation and gained entry by explaining that I was “on MySpace” and gesturing at the bus. Not “with MySpace”, you’ll note. Just on it. Fortunately the distinction was lost on them.

I’m not actually on MySpace.

I can think of no better candidate for description as Gonzo 2.0. Paul is evocative of what what happen if you stripped Hunter S. Thompson of his guns, dressed him in Converse and dropped him in the 21st Century. Wonderful stuff.

This is why we can’t have nice things: TechCrunch

I stopped reading TechCrunch a while ago, so it wasn’t until I saw it mentioned on Loic’s blog recently that Michael Arrington annoyed me all over again, this time by crowing about a holiday video. At the risk of feeding the troll, I want to make it clear how stupid and utterly irritating Michael Arrington’s post about it is.

I watched and enjoyed the video yesterday afternoon. I’ll embed the YouTube version which TechCrunch links to, but I’ll warn you now that it’s already been taken down.

It depicts a group of young people on holiday together, in a large poolside villa. They’re lip-syncing to ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey, in a surprisingly well-orchestrated performance. The original description of the video apparently said

“Twenty world Internet citizens met in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in October of 2008 for a week of reflections on life, love, and the Internet.”

Harmless and fun, right? Here’s what Michael Arrington, writing on TechCrunch, had to say about it on Friday:

…this went down at an unfortunate time for a score of Silicon Valley posterboys and girls as they partied 1999 style “the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in October of 2008 for a week of reflections on life, love, and the Internet.” They leave behind an absurd video that would have gone unnoticed a month ago. But this week, with the walls tumbling down, they look like a bunch of jackasses who have no idea what’s going on back at home.

I’ve personally got a lot of sympathy for the partyers. I’ve not heard of any of them, but it sounds like a bunch of people who are tech sector friends, taking a (probably much needed) week off and having a good time on their own money. At worst, it’s bad timing, but it’s not exactly the recent half-million dollar AIG retreat is it? I’m pleased they were able to take a holiday together, and I’m pleased they took time out of their vacation to entertain us with this amusing and well-executed video. Let’s not be puritanical or sanctimonious about it, eh?

We’ll look back in later years and think of this most recent boom as the Web 2.0 period, when we were wowed by the magic of user generated content, copyright violations on a massive scale, and neat little widgety things that used Javascript and Flash to turn web pages into pretty close equivalents to the old desktop apps.

Really? I like to think we’ll look back at the early years of the 21st century as a time when the web evolved into something participatory. Isn’t that, rather than technology or investment, what ‘Web 2.0’ is all about? Here’s Tim O’Reilly, explaining the term, in a video which lasts less than a minute.

Worst of all though, and a sentence which gets repeated in an even more unnecessary follow-up post pointing out that the video has now been made private but has sprung up on YouTube:

this video will always be associated with the end of Web 2.0.

Honestly, if Michael had thought to include a couple of extra words in that sentence, I might almost have agreed with him. This week is not “the end of Web 2.0”. If anything did just burst it’s the financial bubble which the Economist discusses as ‘Bubble 2.0‘. You can’t confuse that with Web 2.0 though. They’re different things. Is this really all Web 2.0 means to you, Michael? Were you not listening when you asked all those people what Web 2.0 means in that 24 minute long documentary you made on Web 2.0 in 2006? Some highlights from what they told you:

  • Web 2.0 is a marketing term, and a bubble is a financial event.
  • it’s people
  • empowering the little guy
  • users manipulating, interacting with, and sharing information
  • leveraging collective wisdom
  • openness
  • conversation, not a lecture
  • participants, not consumers

In short, Web 2.0 is an attitude, not a technology.

But back to the video. I watched it two, maybe three times yesterday. I enjoyed it. The original video on Vimeo had already been made private, so I was watching the ‘mirror’ on YouTube. Today, that the YouTube version has been taken down as a copyright infringement (“This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by a third party.” initiated, I’m guessing, by the creators?). I’m disappointed that, unless you’ve already watched it or some other public backup of it exists somewhere, you can’t watch it to decide for yourself.

The credit crunch, startups and optimism

Jason Calcanis recently wrote about (The) Startup Depression. As you may know Jason is (still) retired from blogging in order to concentrate on a smaller, closed community via email. He initially wrote the essay as an email to his mailing list, but later opened it up on his otherwise now-dormant blog.

“I promised myself I was retired from blogging to focus on my email newsletter, but I’m getting pounded with so many requests for this essay that I’m giving up and posting it here. This does not mean my retirement from blogging is off, this means I’m posting this so I don’t have to respond to hundreds of emails asking for a copy.”

Clearly, this highlights an important (and obvious) difference between email newsletters and blogs. It seems Jason was taken by surprise by the popularity of the message. It’s a good’un, and well worth a read.

The market will tell you what it wants. You just have to really listen.

Full of advice and tips regarding startups and economic (and clinical) depression.

Since the outside market is out of your control, the best you can do is focus your energy inward. Here are some things you can do after you’ve assessed where you company is at.

  1. Execute better…
  2. Grow the talent you have … Invest in training and education of your top people, because they are the ones who will lead your company through this mess…
  3. Firing the average people… I highly recommend firing anyone who is good or average…
  4. Cut spending every where you can: Recurring costs like connectivity, phones, rent and insurance are things that you can easily cut. Go to each of your providers and ask for 20% relief immediately or you’re leaving…
  5. Find a revenue stream and ride it: If you don’t have a revenue stream right now, you’d better find one on Monday…
  6. Focus on your profitable clients: If you have revenue, start focusing on which clients are most profitable…
  7. Make your top ten 10% better: Look at the top ten aspects of your business and come up with a plan to make each 10% better in the next 30 days…
  8. Hold an optional off-site breakfast meeting on a Sunday and see who shows up: If folks don’t show up for you to grow/save the company on a Sunday for a two hour breakfast, they probably aren’t going to step up when the sh#$%t really hits the fan…
  9. Build marketshare…
  10. Raise money …Build a plan based on revenue and taking market share and folks will consider funding you.

Stowe Boyd responds to Jason:

There is a revolution in the works, and the spark for that often comes from deep despair when dreams are smashed by events. … perhaps now the green fields might not be media, but the actually development of green technologies and web solutions to tie that into our everyday lives. We need to move into a new tomorrow, and innovators and entrepreneurs still have a big role to play.

Fred Wilson also responds to Jason:

“I don’t think we are in a “depression” in startup land. We are in a down cycle driven by a bad global economy. I think the web and information technology is one of the few bright spots in an overall gloomy economic outlook”

Well, a few days later, and Seesmic certainly seem to be going through some tough times. Loic says that he has to let seven employees (1/3 of Seesmic?) go, partly because “advertising is plummeting”.

Gary Vaynerchuk (whose keynote at Web 2.0 Expo NY I really loved) is, as ever, up-beat. In this recent video he covers

ROI. I am talking about Return on the Investment of your advertising dollar. Traditional media advertising is incredibly expensive and doesn’t provide nearly the rate of return you can derive from intelligent web-based marketing campaigns in 2008 and beyond.

In the video, he theorises that print and TV media will struggle, but online marketing, especially adverts in social media websites should pick up business because of return on investment.

Oh go on then, I’ll embed it.

Some quotes:

You think it’s smart to buy this [newspaper] ad, Macy’s? I don’t. I think you get a twitter acount and start interacting with your community. Get 30 interns and you make much more ROI.

[Holding up a full-page magazine ad] Gucci would be far better off going to every watch blog and buying ads there. … The value they get on the backend is so much better, and they can track it. You don’t have to guess what it meant, you can track it.

So. A difficult week. Cause for optimism or pessimism? You decide.

A tale of two ISPs (and two social networks)

I’ve been increasingly frustrated with the speed, reliability, cost and (worst of all) usage limits on my ADSL service from PlusNet. Last night, following up on some new from a friend about O2, I asked Twitter whether I was mad to be considering switching to O2. With 1000+ Twitter followers (how did that happen?) it’s like being able to conduct a little survey of self selecting participants from a reasonably large pool. Even if only 10% of people who follow me read it, and even if 10% of these people reply, that’s still a couple of handfuls of useful feedback. Of course, Twitter is more to me than a survey machine, and rarely do I ask questions directly of my personal clan, but when I do I’m increasingly excited by the results.

Here are some of the responses (I grabbed it via search.twitter.com, so it doesn’t include anyone with a protected Twitter feed).

Twitter responses re ISP quetion

I was particularly impressed that someone from PlusNet noticed and replied to me, asking if there was something specific they could help me with. It’s a brilliant use of the tool, and I want to congratulate them for it, but it’s not enough to make me want to stay with them. While their customer service has always been excellent, and this latest example is really very impressive, my problems with PlusNet lie elsewhere.

In addition to the feedback on Twitter, there’s also Facebook. I actually pay very little attention to Facebook, but I do have it set up to automatically update my status based on Twitter (which is where a good chunk of my online attention is).

Facebook responses re ISP question

Although it’s a little clunky (I never remember that response to Twitter’s question of “What are you doing right now?” is being slurped into Facebook’s “X is…” model, which can makes the syntax is a little weird) it’s a good extension. I occasionally feel guilty about not paying more attention to my friends on Facebook, because it’s usually a pretty one-way experience for me at the moment, but when people reply to my Twitter-injected status updates (either as a comment or on my wall) I’m reminded of people I have sometimes not seen for a very long time. Handily, when someone comments on my status, I get notified via email (which is one of the very few ways Facebook demands my attention these days) so I can log in and reply. I like the way my Twitter experience is extended into a whole other group of friends in this way. I often get into conversations that wouldn’t happen on Twitter alone, because many of my friends on Facebook don’t use it.

Conclusions:

  • PlusNet have some interesting people experimenting with customer service in an era of social media.
  • I still don’t like their service enough to stick with them.
  • I’ve signed up with O2, and will be switching across soon.
  • I like it when my friends help me make a decision.

I’ve requested (and recieved. I told you their customer services is good) a MAC key from PlusNet to allow me to switch providers. It should take O2 less than a couple of weeks for the switchover, which will hopefully be pretty seamless.

It’s £12.50 per month for 8 megabit ADLS line (only £7.50 if you’re an O2 mobile customer) and £15 (or £10) for. The best bit is the unlimited data, with a fair use policy that seems to actually be about fair use rather than setting a monthly cap.

This monthly limit is quite a differentiating factor for me at the moment. PlusNet offers 2 gigabytes per month for £9.99, 15 gigs for £14.99 (which is the option I’m on at the moment) or 30 gigs for £19.99, and will charge an additional £1 for every gigabyte over the cap. I know they have to pay for bandwidth, but it’s a bit steep. At least they’re honest and open about why they’re not offering ‘unlimited’ bandwidth though; it’s undoubtedly better to be up front about your fair use limits than call it ‘unlimited’ but hide a fair use cap in the small print.

O2 really does seem to be offering genuinely unlimited bandwidth with a genuine fair use policy though. From their broadband terms and conditions:

4 What about excessive network usage?

There is no limit on the monthly network usage. However if we feel that your activities are so excessive that other customers are detrimentally affected, we may give you a written warning (by email or otherwise). In extreme circumstances, if the levels of activity do not immediately decrease after the warning, we may terminate or suspend your Services.

Assuming they’re true to their word (and initial research makes this seem likely), it seems like a good deal.

Social Networking report – highlights

I received a copy of the ‘Social network marketing, engagement marketing and brands‘ report by Tom Chapman yesterday.

You can request your own copy here (I don’t think it will cost you any money. Feel free to say I sent you). If you’re interested in social networking platforms can do for your brand or business, you might get something out of it. Although the sample size for this report is not huge, it’s an attempt to undertake some formal research into the use of social networking sites by brands, and it does a pretty good job. The report also includes case studies from Innocent drinks and BBC Radio 1 and the Chris Moyles Show, among others.

I don’t think it’s just relevant for marketing either, though that’s clearly an important focus of the study.

At 47 pages, it’s a bit too long for my tastes. Hence, I’ve pulled out some of the highlights. These may be obvious to you (they certainly make me nod pretty frantically) but it’s useful evidence.

From section 2.1:

“67% of Facebook respondents and 65% of MySpace respondents who answered 5 (slightly stronger) and 6 (much stronger) on the Likert scale indicated that they would feel more affinity and loyalty toward a brand they are a friend or fan of, if that brand listened to their opinions and responded to communications.”

From section 4.1 Are Facebook and MySpace effective platforms for social network marketing?:

“…the consumer conversation between brands and social network users should be controlled by the users themselves. This idea is backed up by the response to the Facebook and MySpace surveys, whereby the respondents strongly indicated that their loyalty to a brand on a social network site would be lost rapidly if the brand itself controlled the conversation…”

From section 5.6 User comments and suggestions offer real value:

“Brands should place significant importance on the value of comments made by users after they have become a friend or fan, and their ability to influence others as brand advocates. This really is the focus of a brands attention, not just the number of friends or fans they have. “

This really important point is also emphasised in section 5.3: Brands and marketers must listen to their friends/fans.

Although the BBC were interviewed for the report, I can’t take any credit; I actually didn’t have any involvement with it at all (Sam Bailey, from Radio 1, was the person interviewed). I’m just a reader and sharer, and I’d be interested to hear what you think about it.

Playful

PlayfulPlayful is a one-day conference about games, happening on Friday the 31st of October, 2008 in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London. Add it to Upcoming or Facebook or, you know, just register.

Focusing on the creative and cultural dimensions, Playful examines game design as both a discipline and craft, offering different perspectives on its current and future possibilities.

I’ll be presenting (I’m on second apparently, following the inimitable James Wallis) and I’ll be showing how Rock Band / Guitar Hero controllers can, with very little money, time and effort, become actual musical instruments. This will be the first conference for which ‘pack plastic guitar, real amp and leads’ are on my TODO list.

Amsterdam. Birthdays.

Ray and I were both 30 this week, so we spent a long weekend in Amsterdam with to celebrate our birthdays.

Urinal Our apartment why is the new because Bridges Canals Amsterdam

Amsterdam doesn’t deserve its seedy reputation. It’s a bit of a cliche to talk about going to Amsterdam for the museums and culture, but no more of a cliche than the assumption that the whole city is full of drugs and prostitution. In truth, the red light district is confined to a fairly small and densely packed area, which has the side effect of making the rest of the city feel even more clean and family-friendly than I would have guessed.

We visited

  • Anne Frank’s house (harrowing)

  • Rembrandt’s house (interesting)
  • Van Gogh Museum (disappointing)
  • Hermitage Museum (brilliant)

and much more.

In stark contrast to LA (which you’ll remember I didn’t like very much) Amsterdam is a cultured and relaxing place to stay; no extravagant displays of opulence or vast downtrodden underclass. Houses may be expensive, but people get around on tatty old bicycles and drink beer and read books in cafes. It feels comfortable and friendly.

We really enjoyed our four days there, and I would definitely go back again.

Amsterdam Rembrandt's House Rembrandt Nightwatch statue Nearly autumn Canal Amsterdam Schiphol airport

Iceland Airwaves – advice on Iceland

Speaking of travel, it’s nearly time for Iceland Airwaves again. Though I won’t be going this year, Mike Hedge recently asked me for some tips to get the most out of Iceland and Airwaves so he can make the most of it.

When I went last year I took loads of photos and my brother and I
recorded a daily hangovercast. In case you missed that last year, or even if you want to listen to it again, you might be pleased to hear that it now has it’s own podcast feed. Subscribe here, or click here to lazily add it to your list in iTunes.

Here’s what I‘d want to know if I was attending Iceland Airwaves, and/or visiting Iceland for the first time. I’ve tweaked the message I sent Mike and dotted a few of my photos around to make it more convincing. These are my tips, but I’d also dearly love to hear what I’ve missed for when I go back one day.

Sam at the Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is really close to the big airport at Keflavik. You can, and should, arrange (either in advance, or at the airport when you arrive) a transfer from the airport to Reykjavik via the Blue Lagoon. It’s well worth it, and is a very nice way to unwind once you land.

Reykjavik 101 - panorama

101 Reykjavik (the postcode for the middle of Reykjavik, which also lends its name to a charming film) is possibly the most intimate and friendly city centre I’ve ever visited. Even during busy times such as Airwaves, everyone seems to know each other. Noticing that you’re from out of town people will want to help make you feel at home. It’s lovely, once you get used to (or are prepared for) the fact that being able to talk to random strangers on the street is a reasonable thing to do. What, in London or New York it would mark you out as an insane person, is perfectly normal in Reykjavik.

Keriđ crater

It’s well worth hiring a car and going for a drive. You won’t need it for the city, but when you want to get out of the city and see the country you can either rent a car or take a slightly-overpriced coach tour. The car rental option is more fun. Here are some of the things you can see:

Geysir

  • Geysir (the geyser for which all others are named)
  • The waterfall at Gullfoss
  • Lots of other waterfalls (Seljalansfoss, Skogafoss, etc)
  • The Keriđ crater
  • Amazing scenery generally. We just kept stopping the car to take photos.

And in the city of Reykjavik itself…

Baejarins Bestu hot dog place

  • the Baejarins Bestu hotdog place is famously good. You need one of these. Unless you’re a vegetarian of course.
  • The Hallgrímskirkja cathedral has to be seen.
  • I really liked hanging out at the cafe called Prikið (all these ‘ð‘ characters are pronounced ‘th’ by the way), and as a way of getting into the day with a burger (and all too often a beer) for breakfast-at-lunchtime.
  • The lobster soup cafe/shack is called Saegreifinn on the harbour. You Must Absolutely Go There and have lobster soup with bread. Whale & putrefied shark are optional.

Lobster soup

And then there’s Airwaves.

Planning is important here. They publish the list of artists, so take a look through and find the ones you don’t want to miss. It will help you plan ahead when the schedule is released.

You’ll probably find that the venues are more of less themed. Heavier stuff will tend to be scheduled in a particular venue, mellow stuff in another. Last year, the venue called Iðnó was where a lot of the laid back, and sometimes not so laid back, indie stuff was happening. Many local bands played there, with one whole evening dedicated to music published by the Bedroom Community label. A lot of bands on 12 Tonar were there too. Speaking of which, 12 Tonar is also a great record shop, and will no doubt be one of the better off-venue locations again this year. These off-venue gigs are cool, and a good way to warm up in the late afternoon before the main events start.

Nico Muhly, through the window of Kaffibarinn

Some venues will get very busy when the big names are on. bear in mind that about half of the people at Airwaves are locals, who love the fact that big foreign names come over to play. One evening we opted to avoid the crush at the Bloc Party gig, and I’m glad we did. I can see Bloc Party anywhere. I went to Airwaves to listen to icelandic and nordic music rather than stuff imported from the UK, Canada, the US, etc.

Trentemøller

I found it helpful to relax and enjoy where I was, even if it meant sitting through something I didn’t 100% enjoy (say, because I knew the next thing was going to be awesome) rather than rushing from place to place and always missing the start of every set. Hanging out at one venue for a whole night (which we did at least once, and even when we did move around, we stayed in venues for chunks rather than for just one set) meant less rushing around, seeing things I wouldn’t have planned to see and discovering new acts.

Greg Haines

Photographers love Airwaves. Partly because Iceland itself is so amazing, and partly because in most of the venues at Airwaves it’s really easy to get right up next to the action. Airwaves is the chance many of these bands have to be showcased to international audiences, and they love the cameras in the venues. (Don’t know about the US, but this is very different to the UK where cameras and recording devices are often banned from gigs). Although there were a couple of venues with dedicated photographer pits right up close, which you needed a press pass to get into, most of the venues didn’t have that though and you can wander up to the front and get some great views (as long as you’re not getting in anyone’s way). Wonderful.

Lastly, and this might sound weird, booze in Iceland is taxed beyond belief, and spirits are stupidly expensive, if you can even find a shop licensed to sell anything more than beer. We found that taking a couple of bottles of spirits with us saved us a small fortune. Watch the import limits though. When we flew from London you were only allowed to take 1 liter of spirits per person into Iceland.

Have fun in Iceland, and have fun at Airwaves. I’m sure you’ll really enjoy it.

Straight Outta Compton

LA is mostly horrible. Don’t go. I spent a week there for a conference recently, and while the conference was great the city is not somewhere I’ll be rushing back to see again any time soon.

For most of the week, it seemed to be that LA’s only redeeming feature (aside from being in California, but let’s discount that since it’s probably the least pleasant city in that very pleasant state) was the weather.

San Francisco (6-7 hours drive north) has that strange, damp, microclimate which is caused by the wet air coming in off the Pacific being pulled in by the hot dry dusty expanses to its East and usually turning to somewhere between drizzle and fog. This gives the city character. It’s like London-on-the-Pacific, with better Mexican food. LA’s arid microclimate, on the other hand, is presumably caused by all of the moisture being driven away at light-speed by frantic heat of a gazillion people all frantically alternating between the parasitic exploitation of celebrity worship and feeding liquidised poor people to their pet Chihuahuas.

Downtown Layers Hydrant Sunlight Lambo

But yes, the weather in LA is nice. It’s drier and sunnier than San Francisco, and less humid than almost anywhere I’ve been. Remove the fine layer of smog that covers the city and it would almost be a nice place to live. As long as you remembered to remove the city first.

In fact, LA is not one city at all. It’s a super-city; a cluster of 8 or 9 cities joined together by freeways, storm drains and malls.

A few days of seeing the same collection of banks, department stores and Starbucks on every downtown street was enough to convince me to explore further afield. My first trip, proving me to be every bit the tourist that I am, was to visit Universal Studios. This was great, but frankly could have been anywhere. I understand the one in Florida is not dissimilar. Great fun, but not exactly a lasting memory of LA culture.

Compton was not high on my list of things to see when I arrived in LA, but after another day of pootling around Downtown and being driven almost physically sick by Hollywood, I felt like getting away from it all.

Compton stood out on the Metro map. Here’s somewhere I’ve heard of. That’s got to be a good place to visit, right? It’s been featured in many of the fine songs by Dr Dre and his hip hop friends. Admittedly, not all of those songs are the most welcoming of ditties (“Compton / Is the city I’m from / Cain’t never leave the crib / Without a murder weap-on”), but it had a reassuring ring of familiarity. In a similar way, Americans and other foreigners coming to London might demand to see London Bridge because they’ve heard the nursery rhyme.

Compton Airfield. Compton. Long Beach. Inglewood. These are places I wanted to see for myself.

Compton Boulevard Sneakers Mattress Sofas This made me sad Orange Bang! Compton

So I went to Long Beach (took photos of the seabirds and the Queen Mary, ate a hot dog, watched a film) and on the way back to stopped off at Compton. It turns out that Compton is pretty much the same as the rest of LA. Dirtier, grottier, poorer, perhaps. The malls contain a different (but overlapping) assortment of shops, and the Compton burger guy is probably a different colour to the Downtown burger guy, but it’s essentially (and disappointingly) the same place. Only a couple of things made my excitement levels rise.

I saw a few pairs of trainers (though I thought of them as sneakers) hanging over telegraph wires. Even the great arbiter of folklore, Snopes, doesn’t know exactly what it means, but it excited me. You don’t see it in the south of England (that I’ve noticed, anyway) and it contained a frisson of gang culture. Perhaps some corners boys work this patch. Keep walking.

The other experience was a little more intimidating. Walking down a side street, about to take a photo of a derelict shop front, a man in a truck (I think it was red) slowed down, and shouted at me out of his rolled down window. “What you doin’ here, boy?”

Good question. What was I doing with a camera, taking photos of an empty (?) shop (?) somewhere in Compton? Fortunately, he’d driven slowly on, looking back and scowling at me, before I got anywhere close to having to think of an answer. What could I have told him? Hello. I think I’m trying to get a sense of adventure in the most dull and monotonous city I’d ever visited. (And bear in mind that I’ve visited both Swansea and Coventry. Ever heard of them?). But in doing so, sir, would you say I’m putting myself unduly at risk?

I’d actually felt pretty safe up until then. Sure, there was that one side street I’d been going to walk down but thought better of it when I saw a police car pull over a big black truck and lots of the neighbouring residents take an interest and walk towards it. I decided to leave that street alone. Apart from that I’d felt pretty comfortable right up to the photographing/truck/’boy’ moment. Sure, I was the single solitary white person I’d seen for the past 2 hours. In fact, even before that, since getting on the Metro at Long Beach I’d seen exactly one white person, and he was homeless in a noisy mad and chaotic way that you sometimes see on subway trains, but never seem to see on the London underground. Does London’s more restrictive ticketing system create a higher barrier to entry for the noisy, mad and drunk?

In any case, this sense of being the odd one out for a change may have been culturally unusual for me, but was nothing scary. If anything, I’d been feeling a little bit invisible because of my being so clearly from out of town. Compton might be a little bit dangerous if you’re in a gang, but surely not for me. Neither black nor Hispanic, I was an obvious civilian in the most obvious way. Right?

Feeling wary, and more awake than I’d felt all day, I walked back onto the strange cross between semi derelict main road and impoverished strip-mall that is Compton Boulevard, and headed back towards the Metro. No more hurriedly than I’d been exploring earlier, but I decided against venturing any further into the side streets.

Later that day, David suggested I meet him and his friend Linda in Chinatown. There were gallery openings, hipsters, people drinking in the (pedestrianised) streets… it was lovely. Cultured, refreshing and fun, in a way that Europeans will often condescendingly describe as ‘European’, but I really mean it felt comfortable. Later that night, Little Tokyo was pleasingly similar. Another different culture, but again that sense of being at home in a strange land. We went to a karaoke bar, in which California’s anti-smoking laws were being exuberantly flaunted.

If I do ever go back to LA, it will be Chinatown and Little Tokyo – rather than Hollywood, Beverly Hllls or South Central – that I explore more fully.

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