Wednesday 20/2/03If you've never been here, San Jose might seem like a romantic, exciting destination. There's even a song about it.

Wednesday 20/2/03
If you've never been here, San Jose might seem like a romantic, exciting destination. There's even a song about it. It has its good points --- the weather is almost always lovely, the people are friendly and there are plenty of really nice places north, south, east and west of here. But San Jose itself is vast and unfocused --- there's no heart around which the city revolves. This is a problem for Intel, which has to feed and entertain the vast hoards of imported journalists: there aren't many places in the area that can keep a bunch of cynical hacks happy for any length of time. Hence our mixed experiences of evenings out in Silicon Valley The first night, we were all bussed to a place called Dave And Buster's, which lives in a giant shopping mall somewhere between San Jose and infinity. Dave and Buster's is a bit like a TGI Friday, only enormously bigger and with a gaming theme: it has acres of pool hall, multiple independent sports bars and a place almost, but not quite, like a Las Vegas casino. This being California, you can't gamble for money: instead, you convert a pile of dollars into tokens or a swipe card and then set out to the fruit machines, shove ha'penny machines, various test-your-strength or ball-chucking games. The usual stuff you'd expect to find on Southend Pier. But when you win, there's a mighty clacking and out spews a stream of paper tickets. The first time this happens, you look on in awe. There are hundreds of the things! Huge paper cups are provided to collect them: the exchange rate seems to be around a dollar spent accrues you a thousand tickets. But what then? Ah, you go to the Winners Enclosure to swap your enormous pile of woodpulp winnings for actual goods. These start at around 1,200 tickets for a four-inch tall cardboard cut-out of Michael Jordan, and head rapidly north from there. As far as we could work out, any hint of gambling was safely avoided: you couldn't reinvest your winnings, and the conversion rate of dollars to goods rivalled investing in a dot-com as a very silly thing to do with your money. The place also completely messed up my ability to correctly judge ages. For example, in California you cannot drink until you're 21. Yet the place was rattling with splendidly drunken kids --- or so it seemed to me. And the whisky on offer said 12-year-old Macallan on the label, but my misguided tastebuds insisted I was committing infanticide on a mongrel with each swallow. It was the jetlag, I guess, or the culture shock. Brits shouldn't expect to get the chance to experience the Dave and Buster's unique atmosphere anytime soon. The company is proud of its international reach: around 30 places in the US, and three outside --- Mexico City, Toronto and Taipei. Last night, it was the Britannia Arms "English Pub". Run by a painfully convivial Essex expatriate who'd fled Colchester 20 years ago, it had all the traditional British accoutrements --- ice hockey sticks on the wall, trestle tables everywhere --- and pub grub that more than accurately recreated the delights on offer in Essex pubs in the 1980s. There was 'shepherds pie' that looked positively post-shepherd, chicken which resembled a recent cartoon hero, Spongebob Squarepants, and a trifle that brought back memories of childhood birthday parties and their inevitable consequences. There was a red phone box outside, albeit without a phone: we briefly considered making it more authentic but good sense prevailed. But that was the high point of the evening. San Jose may be in the centre of Silicon Valley, but it's a tough place for a decent night out.