Being tall

There's something wrong with this shower The shower head is, as ever, too short

:-(

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.

Wedding Weekend

I went to Oxford this weekend to celebrate Megan and Ben’s wedding.

Keble College panorama

The wedding (complete with double violin concerto) was held in the chapel of Worcester college. The reception (complete with bouncy castle) was held in Mansfield college. I stayed in Keble college (shown above). All three colleges are stunning.

If you’ve never been to Oxford it’s eminently worthy of a visit. Utterly soaked in history, it lives up to the foreign tourist’s idea of what England should look like beautifully. Eating breakfast in the dining hall at Keble this morning, Ray and I were reminded of Harry Potter. Philip Pullman is from Oxford, and it clearly influences his work too.

Congratulations and best wishes to Megan and Ben. A lovely time was had by all.

Going Live

Today marks the end of my first full week in my new job at the BBC. As you may know, my role is Portfolio Executive, Social Media – BBC Vision. I’m not going to explain it fully yet (I’ll talk more about what that means and what I’m doing soon, for now I just wanted to let you know I’ve started) but I will say that I report to the lovely Dan Taylor, with the even more impressive job title of Senior Portfolio Executive, Internet – BBC Vision and his recently explanation of his title should get you most of the way there.

Television Centre

Although my first day at Television Centre was predictably filled with first-day at school feelings, walking around the building fills me with something close to awe. Television gets made here, and in addition to things I watch now on iPlayer, triggers for childhood memories abound. If I strain my ear I can almost hear the echoes of Philip Schofield, Sarah Green, Trevor and Simon and Gordon the Gopher. There are Daleks in the Foyer cafe, and a near constant stream of tours of the building.

I was very pleased to arrive at my new desk in Television Centre on day 1 and discover that I already had

  • A badge (temporary pass. I get my RFID badge next week)
  • A telephone, configured with my office number
  • A desktop computer
  • A BBC username with which to access the intranet
  • A laptop (with which I am particularly happy)
  • 3G USB dongle for being productive (or at least as productive as possible) on the train
  • An RSA dongle (for internal webmail access via the internet. Handy)

I must say I’m impressed. Of course, I was slightly less impressed to open my brand new inbox and find 115 emails waiting for me, but that’s what mail filtering rules are for.

Television Centre

The commute to Wood Lane isn’t as bad as it probably sounds. In the morning, I take the first direct train from Southampton Airport Parkway to Clapham (8:08am), the overground to Kensington Olympia and from there the BBC shuttle bus to White City. (I have many people who left comments on this blog and messages on Twitter to thank for that excellent tip.) It’s just over 2 hours door-to-door, and I’m learning about timing my departure time for the return journey correctly in order to avoid making it an unnecessary and painful 3 hours. I am looking forward to the overground line to Shepherd’s Bush opening up later this year too.

For my first week I got a one-week season ticket, which turns out to be impressively good value. It costs less to travel for a whole week (£109) than it would for even two individual daily tickets (at £55 a pop). I also picked up a form for an annual season ticket too, which is an even bigger saving.

Going home

I quite like commuting. The 3G card gets me online so I can clear my inbox and get my brain in gear before I arrive at the office, and even offline the uninterrupted time gives me a chance to read, think and write while listening to podcasts.

In fact, I think I’m going to need to subscribe to a lot more podcasts. A lot more.

My current list is pretty short:

Various people have recently suggested This Week in Tech, This Week in Media, This American Life and Audible for books.

What else should I be listening to?

Family Fun

Just back from a very relaxing family holiday in the Algarve. 7 days of exploring, sunbathing, swimming and reading. I couldn’t feel more relaxed.

The villa and pool, autostitched

We stayed in a lovely villa between Silves and Algoz (about an hour from Faro airport). Six of us stayed in the villa, which was large, clean, well equipped, had a (cheerful and friendly) cleaner who visits twice a week. We were very sorry to say goodbye. Indoors, and in the shaded outdoor dining area, it was cool and shady. A very good thing, since temperatures outside ranged from 25 to 39 °C during the week. Hot hot hot. Coming back to England was a bit of shock.

Sunset at Ferragudo Carvoeiro The pool Beach Sunset at Ferragudo Fig

Aww. That’s sweet.

One of the best bits about visiting different countries is picking up the local delicacies. I rediscovered my stash of American chocolate earlier. Here’s what I’ve been nibbling on today…

Nestle GoobersPeanut Butter M&MsRazzberry M&MsChocolate Mix SkittlesDark Chocolate M&Ms
Nestle GoobersPeanut Butter M&MsRazzberry M&MsChocolate Mix SkittlesDark Chocolate M&Ms

Don’t bother with the Skittles or the ‘Goobers’ (stupid name for chocolate covered peanuts). The Dark Chocolate M&Ms are definitely the highlight.

Back from New York – update

I flew back from New York today, to discover England where I left it, but covered with a light blanket of snow.

I will blog some more notes from the conference soon (I have already shared my flimsy summary on the panel I moderated on Eightbar. More to come) and I’m still uploading photos to Flickr.

For now, here’s a short video of an amazing busker we saw yesterday. (Update to use fancy new Flickr video feature)

NY08 Day 0

Another trip to the US. Unusually, I’m traveling with my office-mate and fellow Metaverse Evangelist, Ian. We tend not to travel together much (there’s more value in us doing our thing individually), but this trip takes in upstate New York for some team meetings before we move on to Manhattan for Thursday and Friday for the Virtual Worlds 2008 conference.

Today’s flight was delayed for about half an hour because of a delayed inbound flight, then for another 20 minutes on the runway because of unexpected ‘congestion’ between the terminal and the sky. This congestion is a constant source of surprise, not to mention annoyance and frustration, at London’s glamorous Heathrow airport. You’d think it would be possible to plan things in such a way that planes are able to take off at an allocated time. I’m always tempted to offer some help with logistics in such situations. I mean, how hard can this be?

New AA inflight entertainment system

American Airlines: ‘we know why you fly‘. Presumably we fly because we have to be somewhere else, quickly. What does this sinister ‘we know why you fly’ tag line even mean? I certainly don’t fly because American Airlines makes it enjoyable for me to do so, that’s for sure.

Speaking of which, American Airlines recently(?) upgraded their in-flight entertainment system. It’s still relatively crappy compared to Virgin Atlantic, but there is at least a slightly better choice now and you can join films on multiple overlapping runs rather than enduring the plane-wide multi track tape to end. On the downside, even if the person in the next seat is watching the same film, you’re not not necessarily watching the same part of the film at the same time, so there’s no longer the strange bonding experience of laughing quietly along with strangers.

Between my usual self-entertainment activities (reading books, playing Nintendo DS and listening to ‘Jordan Jesse Go!’ podcasts), I opted to watch ‘Juno’ on this fancy new, but rather cheaply designed, in-flight entertainment system. The standout line, in a film with many, is the exclamation “Phuket Thailand!”. It’s a charming film which made me laugh as well and very nearly made me cry, though not quite. Bonus extra: great soundtrack with lots of Belle and Sebastian. I think lilsmack might enjoy it. If nothing else, because the lead character (the eponymous Juno) reminds me very much of her. When she was 16, I bet she was just like Juno. Though probably less pregnant. Sadly, it (or at least my experience of it) ended unexpectedly after 60 minutes with a ‘service temporarily unavailable’ error. Pesky new entertainment system. As with the cleaned up version of ‘No Country for Old Men’ the in-flight movie mainly makes me want to watch it at home at some point. It’s like a trailer.

The ‘bathroom’ on the plane contains two paper bags. Something I’ve seen before on AA flights. These are similar in appearance to massive teabags, but instead of delicious and refreshing tea they clearly contain some sort of foul-smelling potpourri. I appreciate that they do something to combat the naturally lingering foul-smelling toilet smells, but they don’t seem to smell much better than, well, poop. In fact, in conjunction with the poopy smells they make matters considerably worse.

I’ve arrived at the first hotel for the trip (the Danbury Sheraton) and am getting an early night. There’s a long week ahead.

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