A pedestrian in Silicon Valley: first impressions

United Airlines is a very different kettle of fish compared to Virgin Atlantic. International flights to the states or elsewhere have traditionally been, at least for me, an opportunity to turn one of the human race’s most fantastic and unbelievable achievements in technology into, well, a pub on a cloud. The only sticking point is you can’t smoke, but those nicorette things are alright really, and it’s difficult to find anywhere at home you can smoke indoors anyway, at least pre lock-in.

Even better, many international flights will offer you courtesy beers. You’d think after screwing a customer out of thousands for a coach seat – air borne cattle ranch where the powers that be think of you as cargo, not people – a couple of those dwarf Heinekens wouldn’t be too much to ask.

Not only does United force you to fork over your credit card in-flight, it really rubs salt in the wound if your wallet can’t stretch to frivolities like extra swinging space for your socks. The elite get their own bed in first class, business class gets you a newspaper and a leather seat for your seat. And extra legroom. But United also offers its cattle in the Prole Aisles six inches extra leg room. Divide your customers, remember their faces, the ones with the money, and offer the scrubs a carrot on a stick they can pay for. Prole Plus. The only comfort you’ll get for 11 hours and it’s for your feet.

Praise the Lord Jobs for stirring up that tablet craze. Long haul without an iPad means you’re watching someone else’s choice for movies, which is kind of like going over to a friend’s house where they show you YouTube videos you don’t really get, but keep going. I guess there are the traditional options like reading, or sleeping, if you can.

R/Firstworldproblems indeed.

Touching down at San Francisco, after you’ve gone through the process at customs, you are greeted with a bright blue sky and no clouds in sight. Sharing the shuttle bus, with two other passengers, one from Symantec and heading to Palo Alto, we make small talk with the driver. I gawp at the weird juxtaposition of inter-twining, vast motorways with the natural beauty of California’s golden mountains peering down at you. It’s humbling.

After a long conversation about the Sex Pistols and The Stooges – “They were basically anarchists,” the Symantec exec said – the other passengers are dropped off and I spot the signs for Cupertino and Sunnyvale and Santa Clara and think about all the secrets stored away in the enormous corporate headquarters dotted around everywhere. The Hyatt draws in, I check in, dump my bag and hunt for cigarettes.

The nearest stores to the Hyatt are miles away, and you’ve got to maneuver around the packed roads and cars which are given right of way. Public transport? Pah, this is America, and we like to drive, you dumb Limey. OK, fine, I go to the hotel gift shop where you can also buy cigarettes.

They’re 10 dollars. It’s still cheaper than central London.

Google Maps is great. It lists local businesses, eateries, bars, shops, etc. Defining local in Santa Clara means a 20 minute drive. Having lived in the densely pub-packed-in coastal town of Brighton, basically London-on-Sea with an added liberal peppering of dreadlocks on white people and herbal teas, finding a bar outside of the hotel felt like a Herculean task. Cabs or nothing. Who builds a town without a bar? Corporate IT does.

With that in mind, yesterday I took the Amtrak into Oakland before GlobalFoundries‘ conference kicks off in earnest on Tuesday.

Santa Clara’s Great America station, named for its close proximity to a theme park, is hidden away underneath a big bridge and around a corner and is less of a station, more of some tracks with a sign nearby. Amtrak trains are huge for someone used to weedly pisspoor provincial commuter-trains around, say, Surrey in England. Like everything in America to this writer, it feels like go hard or go home. Oakland’s in decline and many of its once-promising restaurants and cafes have shut down completely, hollow buildings on the waterfront with rotted support. It costs more to tear them down. I learn that Oakland was on the up before the world was hit hard by the global recession. I’m told a lot of people get shot here these days.

Back to Santa Clara on the 7.30pm train. It’s the last one, any later and it would be the Cal Train, which takes an awful lot longer and the station’s nowhere near the hotel. The guy in the cafe cabin asks me how I got my i-VISA to look so realistic, I tell him it’s real (it is). I get a Heineken and go back upstairs and wait to pull back into Great America. He announces that anything with a red star on it is free, I ask about the Heinekens, those don’t count.

And here I am now, on Monday, keeping MyEye on TechEye and waiting for GTC 2011 to start proper, tomorrow. It should be a good day, and you’ll hear more from us then, in the meantime that was a Londoner’s thoughts on bizarre Santa Clara, Silicon Valley, where the teens don’t throw coke parties and Justin Timberlake is nowhere to be seen.