Viper Squad Ten
We're from the future. And we're stuck....
......VSX......                                                                                                              ......Been a little bit quiet lately......                                                                                                                                                                    

VSX, A shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist: Starbuck Powersurge - a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of Viper Squad Ten, a long-disbanded group of stranded timetravelling troubadours, formed to help finance repairs to their time-machine. Now very much stuck in C21...

Sometimes guest editors: Mr Stu and DJ Tim.


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[ Monday, August 30, 2004 ]

Electric Dreams
Starbuck [19:10] Comments: 0 []
 
After the recent declaration by a proportion of the scientific body that Blade Runner was the best science fiction film of all time, this weekend I decided to reacquaint myself with the Directors Cut again. I'd become fairly obsessed with the original as a kid, and all in all I must have seen both it and the Unicornified version scores and scores of times. And lo it was good. Still.

Another film touching on some similar themes of artificially-created consciousness is I, Robot. Despite mixed reviews I was looking forward to seeing this on the big screen, as I did also this weekend, as quite a few people had recommended it to me, and I'm a big fan of most of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's body of work. As I've not read any of Asimov's stories upon which it was loosely based I experienced the movie solely as is. Which was a thoroughly enjoyable and thoroughly modern blockbuster - classily spectacular without being too insulting to the (above) average viewer, despite the cynical product placement and the sub-Carlton Banks one-liners.

And I thought to myself whether Blade Runner would have such an effect as it has if it was first released today. The possibilities brought about by todays CGI technology, whereby anything is possible, encourage a very different style of film-making. Everything is so instant, so rushed. The SFX in Blade Runner are of another time; certainly not inferior - the model work of the hovering craft still looks stunning - its just that graceful movements colour the film far more strongly than frenetic technical wizardry. But also it was the work of a stubbornly-great director, as opposed to a film-by-focus group.

Its difficult to compare such movies, so different and yet so similar, when one film is so seeped in familiarity and nostalgia to oneself, its name still etched unerodoed within the annals of cinema history. So I carried out a foolproof experiment - I surveyed a control individual (lets call her Ms SP), an individual who had never seen either of these films before this weekend, and asked her which was the more enjoyable movie. The answer - I, Robot.

The scientific conclusion (using the word "scientific" in the loosest sense - hey, everybody's doing it - just look at "Doctor" Gillian McKeith) - I, Robot is better than Blade Runner.

But I digress (without digressing as such). As a sci-fi fan, its interesting how all of the ideas thrown into the mainstream movie melting pot come together, different ideas extracted from the works of the better sf authors only to be used and reused in different contexts by others. In a way it creates a basic truth which becomes hard-wired into We, the audience. Which is probably why I proceeded to work I, Robot somewhere into the Matrix universe. But then again, I am not only boring but deeply sad.

And if you yourself are so bored as to still be here, seven paragraphs later, then you may want to hear my musings on consciousness, both self- and un-, as explored in various pieces of sf. Stuff about metaphysics and the mind, neurone ultra- and morphological super-structure, and the functional units of behaviour within a system. The concept of humanity and "artificial" interpretations of it. Are we not, after all, just a bunch of algorithms, integrated in impossibly-complicated manners; defined by our parameters and shaped by variables? You might even want to hear about Durm Chamine, my old VSX band-mate and navigational computer, and the time that his neural network got fried by a Pulsar-Probe tachyon beam. He may have lost a sense of his artificial personality and self-awareness, but at least he was throwing blistering beats out all over the shop (ship).

You might want to hear about this, but my dinner's ready. Time to die(t).

Instead, go and read Stephen Baxter's Phase Space. I'm halfway through this ex-scientist's collection of short stories exploring humanity and consciousness within the vastness of time and space (or something), but each one so far has left me reeling with wonder.



[ Friday, August 27, 2004 ]

Friday Faction
Starbuck [15:38] Comments: 0 []
 
Pink Floyd based the bass-line of their hit record "Money" on the sound produced by Windy Miller's windmill in British childrens television classic Trumpton.

Listen to the evidence: Windy's windmill wav.


This is your life...and its ending one minute at a time
Starbuck [12:48] Comments: 0 []
 
The Friday before a public holiday weekend. Sitting in my office at work. And the day is dragging.

I've been counting the minutes, inwardly welcoming every grain of sand that slips through the hourglass of my life. My remaining timespan may be shortening, each and every breath being one inhalation closer to my last, but by proportion I'm travelling along the timeline of today a hell of a lot faster..

Now and then I calculate the percentage of my time at work now behind me. Elapsed time / Total time x 100. 0.22 % per minute. Its amazing how large each of these minimal incremental increases seem when you're willing the time away. Whilst my life is ending in infinitesimal increments, great chunks are being torn out of today by the second.

I've been looking for some sort of freeware download or online counter that will continually calculate the fraction of the working day that is remaining. No luck. Zilch for Windows. However, the upshot is that the whole searching process ate into a massive 6.67% (recurring) of my working hours. Result.

Time ticks on...



[ Thursday, August 26, 2004 ]

Sky high sci fi by sci(entists) FYI
Starbuck [12:45] Comments: 0 []
 
Wondering which science fiction films would come out top if a panel of 56 international scientists were to vote for their favourites? Then satiate your curiosity by clicking HERE.

No great suprises, but interesting all the same. If you like that sort of thing.



[ Wednesday, August 25, 2004 ]

Bits and pieces, bits and pieces
Starbuck [21:42] Comments: 0 []
 
No incisive editorial content today, I'm feeling too antisocial. Just a few stupid odds and sods instead, with the VSX Random Stuff Awards. But wait, those two sentences were in effect editorial - buggeration! Enough of these digressions... we continue...

Unusual surname of the week
- Cumberpatch! Spotted during the course of my work, and no doubt belonging to a family of hobbits.

Freeware download of the week
- OpenOffice.org (though, being a biggie of a download, it'd perhaps be better off as PC-magazine-DVD-freebie or BitTorrent partial-download of the week). I'm too damn honest to have a cracked copy of Microsoft Office on my home machine, and MS Works just doesn't work too well. However having just started using OpenOffice at home I won't have to retort to stealing from poor Microsoft to get my life in order, and what would normally be some fairly haphazard wedding arrangements have already been nicely streamlined by the rather sleek Excel-compatible spreadsheet software. C'mon Microsoft users, you know it makes sense - stick it to The Man!

Histrionic roadside sign of the week
- S.O.S. emblazened on emergency telephones. "Save our souls"? A little over the top, methinks. Christ, what do they think's going to happen to the poor sods who've broken down? It should just read DON'T PANIC!

Creeping net annoyance of the week
- the feeling that the Sponsored Links column to the right of the Google search results page continues to ever-widen in girth. Look, we know its there, we're well practiced at ignoring the right third of the screen unless we so desire otherwise, but those brown-envelope links are getting a bit intrusive, squeezing the rest of the search results just a little too much. And don't even think about checking the Google option to "open results in a new window", thick-head.

Downright infuriating net annoyance of the week
- denial of service attacks directed against my workplace, resulting in these words being published 9 hours late.

Newly blogrolled site of the week (for what its worth) - Psychbloke. He teaches Psychology. He lives round my old manor. He blogs. What more do you need to know?

Film of the week - Shrek 2 (all the better for the lack of suffix). A wonderful piece of cinema. Although these new-fangled CGImation thingummies hurt my head a bit at the cinema. Because I know that every single pixel was placed exactly where it is by design (he says, conveniently sweeping over the procedurally-generated pixels), my eyes end up focusing all the more on the entire canvas of the screen, not wanting to miss a single stroke of artistry. Non-animated images in movies just "are", and I can relax my eyes somewhat more...



[ Monday, August 23, 2004 ]

Album review
Starbuck [22:02] Comments: 0 []
 
Prodigy - Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned

I've not had the chance to listen to it yet. But the cover art is RUBBISH.



Anyway, this is as good a time as any to link to Musicplasma.com - type in the name of a musical combo, and using the magic of electricity, they will be diagramatically represented on screen as a sphere. Musically-close artists will be floating nearby, clustered by genre. The more popular the band the larger the radiance of their halo. Fascinating. I've been enjoying drifting around the Death Metal backwaters of the galaxy...


Wot no Burberry?
Starbuck [20:22] Comments: 0 []
 
I hate that burberry baseball cap/fake Mr T chain scum-sucker yob look that has been infecting small town Britain. No, really, I absolutely HATE it. If these islands are dumbing down, then this truely is the de rigeur clown uniform.

Being slightly decrepit and behind the times, Uncle Starbuck didn't realise there was a name for these people. Until now. The name is chav.

I'd never made the connection the few times I'd heard "chav" fleetingly mentioned on the radio. But the chucklesome website ChavScum ("a field guide to Britains burgeoning peasant underclass") has clarified everything. (Thanks to The Word for this 14 carat link.)



[ Sunday, August 22, 2004 ]

New workplace
Starbuck [18:49] Comments: 0 []
 
OK OK, I know that copy-pasting from meme-y emails is lazy practice, and its probably old enough to have already been seen on more VDU's than Windows Update, but its been a busy old weekend (DJ Tim & the missus travelled up to help dog-sit), and its not getting any less busy (in a wedding planner styley) now they've gone. Also: it made me cough up a few laughs from deep down in my belly. I'm easily amused, you see. And bitter. So here it is.

ESSENTIAL NEW WORDS FOR THE WORK-PLACE ENVIRONMENT

TESTICULATING:
Waving your arms around and talking bollocks.

BLAMESTORMING:
Sitting around in a group, discussing why a deadline was missed, or a project failed, and exactly who was responsible.

SEAGULL MANAGER:
A manager who flies in, makes a lot of noise, craps on everything and then leaves.

ASSMOSIS:
The process by which people seem to absorb success and advancement - by sucking up to the boss rather than working hard.

SALMON DAY:
The experience of spending an entire day swimming upstream, only to get screwed and die.

CUBE FARM:
An office filled with cubicles.

PRAIRIE DOGGING:
When someone yells or drops something loudly in a cube farm and peoples' heads pop up over the walls to see what's going on. Also applies to applause for a promotion because there may be cake.

MOUSE POTATO:
The on-line, wired generation's answer to the couch potato.

SITCOMs:
Single Income, Two Children, Oppressive Mortgage. What yuppies turn into when they have children and one of them stops working to stay home with the kids or start a "home business".

STRESS PUPPY:
A person who seems to thrive on being stressed out and whining all the time.

XEROX SUBSIDY:
Euphemism for nicking free photocopies from one's workplace.

PERCUSSIVE MAINTENANCE:
The fine art of whacking the crap out of an electronic device to get it to work again.

ADMINISPHERE:
The rarified organisational layers that start just above the rank and file. Decisions that fall from the "adminisphere" are often profoundly inappropriate or irrelevant to the problems they were designed to solve.

This is often affiliated with the dreaded "administrivia" - needless paperwork and processes.

404:
Someone who's clueless. From the World Wide Web error message "404 Not Found"(meaning that the requested document could not be located).

OHNOSECOND:
That minuscule moment in time when you realise that you've just made a BIG mistake (e.g. you've just hit 'reply all').

WOOFies:
Well Off Older Folk.

CROP DUSTING:
Surreptitiously farting while passing through a CUBE FARM, then enjoying the ensuing sounds of dismay and disgust. Usually leads to PRAIRIE DOGGING.



[ Thursday, August 19, 2004 ]

Lifetimes through a lens
Starbuck [20:07] Comments: 0 []
 
Today at work I received a leaflet at work about Viewfinder from English Heritage.

Fascinating - a freely searchable library of 20,000 photographs from the the National Monuments Record covering hundreds of years of English history. Looking at grainy black and white images of places I know so well such as Kenilworth Castle, familiar despite being taken many generations ago, certainly gets my evocativation glands pumping.

It gives those of us who can no longer time-travel a tangible glimpse of the past. Techno-kids might thing this sort of thing is boring, old hat. Its not. And anything that assists our generation to preserve a sense of perspective about their self-importance must be a good thing...



[ Wednesday, August 18, 2004 ]

Too much sensory information
Starbuck [13:46] Comments: 0 []
 
Crikey, I just can't stand it anymore! There's been building work going on just outside my window for the last few weeks, and its all getting too much. It sounds like there's an episode of Robot Wars being filmed out there - a cacocophony of searing angle-grinders, metallic hammering, and Craig Charles' contagious laugh (though I may have imagined that last element). I reckon that Sir Killalot and co must be stealthily concealing themselves behind a parked van whenever they see me silhouette appear in the window...

Works been fairly hasslesome today, so I was looking forward to my lunch break even more than usual. However my haven of peace by the lake was cruelly disturbed by bread-starved wildfowl - ducks, moorhens and Canada geese, all wanting a piece of my spring-roll action. For lunch-time annoyances, see also: drizzle.

"Still", I thought grumpily to myself, "at least I've not had to see that annoying couple of love-birds". The couple in question are a man, looking for all the world like a posh heavy metal biker teddy-boy (if you can such a crossbreed - think Rod from Eastenders with a a bit of Neo and Showaddywaddy about him), and a girl very much of the gothic extraction, all long hair and black/purple robes. Their natural habitat is the path by the lake, where they hold themselves in a tight clench for hours at a time, lost in deep snog. I always feel very uncomfortable passing these creatures by, and I often wonder whether they spend all their time like this, or just their lunch times.

Anyway, walking back across the site towards my building, I glanced over at one of cars parked by the side of the road. AND THE LOVE-BIRDS WERE GETTING IT ON IN ONE OF THE CARS, IN THE MOST PUBLIC OF PUBLIC PLACES! The day just gets more and more annoying! I guess I shouldn't have been suprised...



[ Tuesday, August 17, 2004 ]

Cyber-Satan
Starbuck [20:38] Comments: 0 []
 
Astolath of Cyber-Satan fame is back from his hols with an indepth report of his not-so Satanic shenanigans. This may seem like a small snippet of useless information to you, but it gives me an excuse to highlight one of the best blogs around.

I tell you, its a tragedy that his last few years' archives have been lost into the electronic ether...



[ Sunday, August 15, 2004 ]

Group Hug
Starbuck [17:52] Comments: 0 []
 
(peers through bloodshot eyes at the VDU, wincing at the harshness of the glare)

Feeling a little hungover today. The highspot for my mind today was falling asleep in the light rain, the sound of a fountain washing against one ear, bird calls falling against the other. Feeling quite vapid. Vacuous. But I have to write.

The reason - somewhere in my aching consciousness there's a pleasure centre circuit still buzzing from last night.

I had a close group of friends whilst at school, and I'm lucky that the unit is still in touch 13 years down the line. We might not meet together as a group that often - Christmas Eve seems to be our one regular date - but when we do, we're the same bunch of kids as we were all those years ago.

And last night we all (minus one) converged on the Midlands from the four corners of England. I'd say that the whole thing was like an episode of Friends (except we're not American and no contrived comedic situations occurred) or Cold Feet (except I've never seen it, and maybe its not at all like that after all). A marvellous evening.

Things are shifting within the lives of our group. One of our number - Charlie - is moving to Israel/Palestine to teach. This was the instigating factor for the evening - a goodbye celebration at the pub where we used to do bad karaoke more than a decade ago.

Mike (aka Viper Squad Ten The Band's guitarist/co-vocalist Commander Aardvark, the chimaeric alien-human clone who's piss-poor piloting skills crashed our space-ship in this godforsaken era) and his lovely girlfriend Abi are also just about to embark on an eight-month tour of Europe, Morocco and South America followed by emigration to Australia. So it was goodbye from me, and it was goodbye from him. Matt (who's bad acting in our self-made horrorest of horror films - Hormone Hell - makes him the Joey of the group; Joey from Friends, as opposed to Joey Deacon) is also likely to be relocating to Oz sometime next year. And so, perhaps, is Trish. What's with these people? Haven't these people seen Bodymelt (Harold Bishop from Neighbours' finest hour)? Its a dangerous place!

Another of the tectonic plates set in motion last night was Tara announcing that she's with-child (fabulous news!), let alone mine and Mrs Starbuck's impending nuptials.

All in all an eventful evening. I don't usually write too much personal stuff like this on these pages, as you (the reader) are unlikely to know these people (unless, in fact, you do). But I'm going to miss these people's close physical proximity (even if our frequency of acquaintance is already pretty low). And although I wish that we could met up more often, its heartening to know that however much things change, nothing ever changes between us.



[ Friday, August 13, 2004 ]

Gratuitous cute doggie photograph
Starbuck [21:21] Comments: 0 []
 
I'm currently dog-sitting. Its a good excuse to throw this picture up for all you soft shites out there...

Ahh - daft as a brush!


Tragic Olympic cliché
Starbuck [19:22] Comments: 0 []
 
If I hear one more lazy news resort to refering to happenings at the 2004 Olympics game as "a Greek tragedy" then I'm going to scream! Look at them over at Google News and weep til your Olympic rings bleed....


Brother Nadia
Starbuck [18:50] Comments: 0 []
 
Months of blanket broadcasting coverage tends to give long-serving Big Brother contestants fully-fledged and immutable character in the viewers hive-mind. So when I see 2004 Big Brother UK winner Nadia Almada, I don't see any of her pre-BB background, I just see Nadia (annoying as the experience may be).

I'd never even thought about what she looked like when she was a man. However, I've just had that nonexistent hole in my imagination filled, courtesy of the delicately-named I Hump Pillows blog. Those interested should CLICK HERE.

Don't worry. There's no "last chicken in the shop" photos. Do you see?



[ Wednesday, August 11, 2004 ]

SE_Obsession
Starbuck [18:46] Comments: 0 []
 
As a website owner, I'm sure I'm not alone in obsessing about how my baby looks to the outside world, the window being those evil Search Engines (and to see how Google sees YOUR site, visit the Poodle Predictor).

A day isn't complete without a quick check on Google for "Viper Squad Ten" and "fatcityarizona". Being a boring sod, I actually find it interesting to observe how VSX gets buffetted around by the ebb and flow of search engine algorhythms. I am a nightmare.

However, I was a bit shocked today to see that the VSX main page (http://fatcityarizona.blogspot.com) has dropped off the Google index, despite apparently having a Google PageRank of 5. The URL is listed, but without a title or description, and no Cache. Shiver. It may be on the index, but it hasn't been indexed.

I reckon its a conspiracy. Google, wanting to dampen down the information-overloading effect of weblogs on the net, buys Blogger. Blogger introduces a page-per-post feature, creating an unseemly mass of low-value links within a site. Each donor link gets devalued and most internal pages get wiped from the cache-list. The influence of blog noise on search-results is thus filtered. 500 diffuse pages packs a lot less punch than 10 content-filled archives.

OK, maybe not. Maybe I shouldn't have unlocked my Javascript-protected archives over the weekend. Or maybe I simply shouldn't have signposted some links in a recent post with the spamful word "LINK". Maybe the Googlebots have started to penalise some perceived reciprocal linking between blogrolled writers. Maybe they've started viewing us in the same way that they view link farms.

Or maybe it was just a glitch in their matrix.



[ Tuesday, August 10, 2004 ]

Self-aware
Starbuck [21:29] Comments: 0 []
 
Towards the end of last month I read a article (LINK) in the paper about self-harm from a former harmer. Written by Nick Johnstone, whose regular fortnightly column (Blue Notes) about living with depression deserves a far larger audience than the G2 section of the Guardian, it was a necessary response to the recent well-meaning but fundamentally-flawed report by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. Having myself reached calm and placid waters after some years on the turbulent seas of life, his words hit home. For anyone who can't understand what continues to drive people to such lengths, he gives the reason for such behaviour quite succinctly: "People do it to feel better, the injury triggering a release of endorphins, bringing a much-needed "high" in the midst of depression or other mental illness." That and control; in some ways its also not so far removed from eating-disorders.

A few days later I was incensed to read in the same paper another article (LINK) putting an anonymous doctor's opinion on this matter. I know that doctors are only human. I guess that that makes some of them misguided.

I would comment more, but Johnstone's response (LINK) today says it as well as anyone could. Read his words.



[ Sunday, August 08, 2004 ]

Reading your blogs...
Starbuck [19:59] Comments: 0 []
 
... so you don't have to. Publicising some interesting links that have ended up as electronic desktop yellow stickies on my desktop over the last few weeks.

Firstly, a Flash version of platform classic Castlevania to enjoy in your very own browsers exists HERE. Whatever next? Well, how about a Flash version of Street Fighter from the same people? Marvellous - sweet nostalgia! (Couldn't get the fighters to appear in Firefox, but works a treat in IE). Thanks to NiceGuyUK for the original Castlevania link...

Thanks also to NGUK for pointing me to the Random Personal Picture Finder, "which makes random filenames using the prefixes used by popular digital cameras and adding a random number, then feeding this into Google Image Search." As you'd expect, you end up with a collection of unconnected images from a cross-section of websites...

More sophisticated types might want to play Mousebreaker, a stick cricket game spotted by the Iron Monkey. I am extremely bad at it.

A rather wonderful web toy is typoGenerator, which can be used to create stylish and artistic images for people like me without style or artistry. Apparently, after you have typed in some text, "typoGenerator searches images.google for the text and creates a background from the found images, using randomly chosen effects; then it places the text, using random effects too." I saw this one at Third Daughter's blog.

Similarly useful for decorating your own blogs may be Graffiti Creator, which once can use to, erm, create grafitti. Random fact - Sub-editor DJ Tim's tag used to be Traxco. If you have Traxco scrawled across your house then you now know who to blame. Link spotted at What's The Story.

Oh, and like Billy, when my death comes I will be crushed by a giant duck. What about you?

Finally, some blogs likely to soon hit the blogroll. After The Debauchery, proving that my life isn't the most interesting life in the world after all. And, more locally, shakespeare wuz 'ere and The Word..., which somewhat confusingly are the same person, Lawn Greengrass.

Sigh. I feel quite overcome by all that. I must go and have a lie down in a link-free room.



[ Friday, August 06, 2004 ]

# A kind of madness #
Starbuck [16:37] Comments: 0 []
 
How do
Do-it-all
Do it
What they do it for ...
Can somebody tell?

If only we knew it
How do-it-all do it...

You can bet..
We'd be doing it as well !!

If you know what I'm talking about, you'll now be suffering from the same internal jukebox nightmare that has been pushing me ever closer to insania this afternoon.

And if you don't know what I'm talking about, listen to THIS mp3 and weep (sourced from TV Cream); unfortunately its a impure, bloated late version of the Do It All advert's music rather than the pared down punk purity of the earlier versions, so ignore the unfocussed lyrical theme, daddio, and chant out your own lyrics as per above. You fools.

Strewth, its even worse than my normal internal jukebox. Its an internal video-jukebox. I can see them now - Big Ron Tarr from Eastenders, the Teddy Boy one, and the other one, prancing around my neural screen. Not good.

I was haunted by this thing for most of my recent holiday. My girlfriend and myself spent many a spare moment laying siege to each others sanity with unwanted Do-It-All lyrics.

And if this isn't making it difficult enough inside my head, that shoddy workman Bob The blinkin' Builder has been demanding a piece of the internal jukebox action as well.

Thank Kurgan that something half-decent has phased in to my autonomic Int-Ju brainwaves - Queen's "Gimme The Prize" has been pushing for space. There can be only one!



[ Thursday, August 05, 2004 ]

I'm still here - just
DJ Tim [22:12] Comments: 0 []
 
Big Bro , blaa blaa blaa.... at least Jason still in.... Good eviction last night .... even better one last Friday.

All you freeview viewers - have a laugh - look at the new BBCi service, just wait till the end of september then you'll see how it should be done.

Must go now

Timbo - overworked stressed bunny


Spiderman 2
Starbuck [13:12] Comments: 0 []
 
A vastly superior sequel. Roughly 4.75 times more exhilerating and fulfilling than the first film. Funny, touching, exciting, intelligent, X-cellent.

All Spidey's lacking now is a proper theme-tune, something John Williams-ish, for kids big and small to hum as they mentally websling their way about their business. Although the way they sneaked in the original Spiderman TV theme ("Spiderman, Spiderman, does whatever a spider can") was comic genius!

Geekozoids will appreciate seeing Sam Raimi-chainsaw-veteran Bruce Campbell making an appearance as an ultra-annoying usher at MJ's theatre, as well as a brief rubble-dodging cameo from split-name-Amazing-Spiderman-creator Stan Lee.

Some fantastic trailers/shorts/promos before the film, too. Hellboy! With Ron Perlman!! Out on DVD in 3 weeks in the States, but coming soon to UK cinemas (what's that smell?). Can't wait, if only for the Perlman-factor... And as for Pixar's The Incredibles - excuse me, its all got too much, I'm going to have to go and wee.



[ Sunday, August 01, 2004 ]

A Week In Provence (NEW - now with added photos - no imagination required!)
Starbuck [12:47] Comments: 0 []
 
A week on from my semaine en France, I'm finally putting pen (keyboard connectors) to paper (website text-entry-interface) as promised with the fruits of my fact-finding mission. I'll relay the notes that I jotted down notes during the course of the week, so apologies for any roughness of exposition.

Starbuck's Facts From France

1. The most valuable element of any holiday is the transition to another world.

Having arrived at Marseilles airport, my parents quickly whisked us away through the darkness. Driving along the autoroutes and byways of West Provence, snatches of this different but familiar world briefly broke through the gloom outside the vehicle. Excitement mounted. Deep in the countryside, the car forged its path through the blackness, climbing sharply and steeply up hidden valley slopes, merged as one behind the glass with the nothingness of the sky. Finally emerging at the villa, we eagerly left the car. The atmosphere washed over me. The sweet smell of pine was thick in the air, the chirping of crickets a constant background hum, the ambient temperature pleasant. And then, the following morning, the big reveal...



The villa's grounds were nestled two-thirds of the way up the valley slopes, opposite the north face of Mount Sainte-Victoire, 13 kilometres east of Aix-en-Provence. Behind the villa, towering slabs of rock pushed out from the scree-lain inclines, to which dense forestation had somehow found the foothold to anchor itself at impossible angles. Even more impressive was the view across the valley, framed by dusty cypresses and towering pines, with La Croix de Provence crowning the west face, the cross clinging to the mountain-top clearly visible from our villa. Cezanne concentrated a body of his work on the landscape formed around this pyramidal hunk of rock. With vistas such as these, its not hard to see what attracted the artistic eye. Another world...

2. Small but fundamental changes to one's diet can cause large changes to one's bowel movements.

For the first half of the week, my regular 24-hour sit-down-toilet cycle switched down a gear to 48-hour mode. It felt like I was carrying several bags of cement around inside of me...

3. "French plumbing and sewarage systems may not be as robust as those at home. To avoid the danger and inconvenience of a blockage, please note the following: Please do not flush tampons, condoms, sanitary towels, nappies or baby wipes etc. Try to avoid flushing large amounts of paper in one go. Thank you."

Every villa in France seems to have such a notice. It made me doubly concerned about the knock-on effects of fact number 2.

4. The nearest village was Vauvenargues, down the hillside and a couple of kilometres to the east (some nice photographs on the Provenceweb website). A lovely quietly quaint village.


Just outside the village lies the 14th Century Chateau de Vauvenargues, fabulously photogenic and fully integrated visually into the magnificent scenery. The chateau was the home of Luc de Clapiers (1715 - 1747), author of the "Introduction a la connaiscance de l'esperit humain", in which he wrote that "the highest perfection of the human soul is to make it capable of pleasure". This the people of Vauvenargues have taken to heart, with one of the tastiest pizzerias I've had the fortune to visit!

In 1958 the chateau was purchased by Picasso. He is buried within the grounds, his peace protected from the chattering of tourists by vicious-looking hounds fresh from the set of The Omen.

5. Everyone is an artist in Provence, or so it seems. Beware being kidnapped by glassy-eyed and pot-bellied windmill-dwellers, intent on selling you their wares. You could be in Beijing!

5. Happen to be travelling along the Route de Vauvenargues RD10 between the Parc Saint Marc de Jaumegarde and Vauvenargues? Drop in at Chez Le Garde - a wonderful restaurant. They'll fill you up, they'll get you pissed, and they've got the most fantastic toilet I've ever seen (its like being on a ship, complete with storm lamps. and fake vines crawling through the walls. and starfish and shells embedded in the toilet seat and cistern. and more soaps, oils and lotions than the Body Shop. 9/10 on the toiletometer.)

6. I have previously charted my ant obsession on these pages. Fair enough, a man's gotta have an interest. However, our ants in the UK are fairly boring. Much more interesting to study the massive phenotypic and behavioural differences between Mediterranean ants. So, erm, you've got the big meaty ones - tasty-looking critters - which are on the whole solitary, independent beasts; their close phylogenic relationship with wasps evidently obvious from their physical superstructure, looking like soot-black wingless versions of everyones favourite meanness machine. You can see the difference in unit intelligence between these big old muthas and the smaller, swarming varieties, the latter blindly following the common pheremone trail for food, the former living their own anty dreams.

7. The aforementioned Croix de Provence on the western brow of Mont Ste-Victoire marks a place of deep history. Legend has it that in 102BC the Roman general Super Marius stood watching from this spot as his troops annihilated the Teutones; he then ordered the 300 defeated Chieftains (not the folk band) to be brought up to him, where they were tossed into Garagai - Ste-Victoire's mighty chasm. Or so my mum's guidebook said. A less reliable legend has it that the bottom of the Garagai contains an enchanted lake and meadows, and was home to the Golden Goat of Provence; shepherds would lower their sick sheep and cows down on ropes to graze on the therapeutic grasses. The fools. It was in fact the entrance of hell (Apparently.)

8.Ear infection? Can you feel your ear drum crinkle uncomfortable as the viscous liquids of sickness get dislodged whenever you equalise the pressure in your inner ears? There is only one sure-fire therapy. Lie in some daytime 35 degree Celsius sun next to a pool, head to one side gazing up at a mountainside, boiling away the poorlyness. And take a couple of Ibuprofen every 4 hours. Sorted.

9. Sunflower fields - a glowing mosaic of verdant yellow and green - are deeply moving.

10
. Calanques are not rotting pits within the flesh of trees, but are in fact mini-fjords in a French-styley.
We visited Cassis - a lovely old choral-fishing port, flanked by crystal-white cliffs and beached bays. The brilliant-white stone of the sheer limestone cliffs has long been exported, most famously for the construction of the Suez Canal. The views from the boat trips exploring the calanques were breath-takingly beautiful. Ahhh!


11. Fire is danger. Beware the fire. It is bad.


Our explorations around the region of Mount Ste-Victoire were often impeded by the signed restrictions, prohibiting the user of various paths due to the fire risks. Sensible considering the tinderbox nature of the flora, but selfishly annoying to us all the same. However, our final full day at the villa was enlivened by the sight of numerous helicopters soaring overhead and dumping their loads of water over the landscape, dampening down potential flashpoints. It was comforting to know they were paying attention, but fairly disconcerting all the same.

Then on the next day, whilst in the environs of Marseilles for the flight home, we saw billowing plumes of what first looked like pollution. As we drove closer the seriousness of it became apparent. It looked like petrol fumes of a downed aircraft, I thought, as we approached the airport; the toxic guts of a jet airlines haemorrhaging into the sky. As the smoke got thicker it revealed itself to be "just" a forest fire. Later on, safely ensconed within the airport, we saw that the nearby sky was gashed with yet-worse sooty clouds, scarring half of the hemisphere above as the winds spread another wooden furnace across the countryside. Just 6 hours to wait... fingers crossed. No-one at the airport seemed too concerned at the approaching devastation, except for the many light aircraft and helicopters dropping their hydrous bombs, or the queues of traffic evacuating the nearest hillside town. Strangely exhilarating.

12. The beauty of night-flying.

As we escaped from the wildfires surrounding Marseille airport, the view was awe-inspiring. Terrible but awe-inspiring, the purple-orange glow of the roaring hillsides lighting up the sky, like a lava-filled crater broken across the ground.

Later, cruising above mainland France, watching the buildings and streetlights far below, stretching out like molten gold pools in the distance, their regularity resolving in close-up as cellular cross-sections across a microscope slide. In the words of a child sitting behind me looking down at a web of street lights converging on an urban centre, "Dad, come and look at this spider town!"

But the most wonderful sight of the flight - fireworks from 39000 feet, looking like muticoloured exploding suns, burning like dandelions far below the craft.

13. More of my favourite French things can be found HERE.



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