Can’t resist sharing a few more of my Tucson IR Saguaro pictures.

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The camera which shot them was the only mirrorless APSC camera Pentax made — a not-very ergonomic square box camera designed by one “Marc Newsom”. Apparently said Newsom’s trademark was objets coloured bright yellow, something I am very in favour of. But the yellow K-01s were in short supply, and so I got a black one, which a company back east called Digital Silver Imaging converted to infra-red (I think by removing the anti-aliasing filter and putting an IR filter in its place. Thus the sensor records light wavelengths we don’t normally see — such as the brilliant white reflected by chlorophyl.

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For Bill The Galactic Hero DSI converted a Black Magic video camera in the same way – with an 830nm (nanomtetre) IR filter. The numbers determine the amount of regular light versus infrared light passing through the filter.

IMGP8472 copy I have another old Pentax camera – a K10D DSLR – with a 720nm IR filter. This lets more “regular” light through, and can produce some interesting colour effects:

IMGP8599 copy If you were to buy the only black-and-white dedicated digital camera, the Leica Monochrom M, it would set you back about $8,000 (body only, lenses extra). No doubt it is a wonderful camera. But for less than $300 you can buy a used Pentax K-01 (or spend $600 and get the yellow model new). For approx. $200, DSI or another company will install the IR filter of your choice. And for a total spend of around five hundred bucks/four hundred pounds (if you don’t mind doing some post-production work) you will have a very nice monochrome digital still (and video) camera.

IMGP8428 copy (My K-01 survived a brief drowning in the Klamath River. It is not waterproof or water-resistant and after getting wet it died. Patience, a screwdriver, an oven, and a plastic bag of brown rice brought it back to life, but I don’t recommend this experiment. )

Merry Xmas, and a happy new year!




Tod and the dogs and I were driving back from Colorado to Oregon (the dogs don’t drive on the highway yet because they don’t have licenses) and we had far too many books and DVDs and tapes and media items to fit in the cars. She was for some reason unkeen on my plan to rent a trailer, fill it with the books, and tow it behind my decrepit 20-year old machine. We went through alternative options – the big shipping companies (very expensive), via Greyhound bus (pickup at the Greyhound station) – and learned at the Post Office that Media Mail was the cheapest of them all. It all has to be media, of course: no letters or clothing items, just books, tapes, DVDs, and screenplays (which are one of the listed items on the USPS Media Mail web page: “play scripts and manuscripts”).

So tra-la to the Post Office in Boulder we went, and media mailed off nineteen boxes, filled with the above. I love the Post Office, wherever it can still be found. Particularly the Central Post Office in Mexico City, a vision of loveliness. I am sorry that the Post Office is under-staffed and under-budgeted and has lost its one reliable source of revenue – express mail – to “privatizing” politicians. Our old mailman, Larry, was the best postal delivery person I have ever met. We used the Post Office exclusively (spending almost $4000) doing fullfillment on BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO, with relatively few complaints from the recipients.

But this latest USPS experience was not good. One of the rules of Media Mail is that that packages “are subject to inspection by the Postal Service™.” Inspection is a condition of getting the cheaper rate that Media Mail offers. And at least five of our packages were thoroughly inspected! One label says “Rewrapped by USPS Seattle Network Center”. Another box was certified as “Postage OK” in Denver, by an inspector Ayala. At one USPS facility or another someone sliced each box from corner to corner, broke it open and extracted the contents. About three boxes’ worth of our media – mostly books – went missing. Other stuff was quite specifically damaged. Whoever did this was clearly no fan of Dennis Hopper or Stewart Stern since their original screenplay for The Last Movie had its brass fasteners removed, and was then torn apart and partially redistributed in three of the boxes. See below:


This is what remains of The Last Movie script, reimagined in the style of the movie, by the Post Office. USPS clearly has a higher opinion of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, whose English-language script (to the left of the picture) survived the same “inspection”. Worse damage was done. In one of my stoutly-wrapped packages were three rolls of microfiche files from the National Archives – purchased from the US government for $45 apiece. Two of these files went missing completely. The third one showed up in a new box, priority mail, like this (that’s a piece of screwed-up Last Movie script found next to it):


So one government agency works to render unusable media only available in an antique archival format from another government agency! The container the above files came in, originally, is shown below. Now postal inspector Ayala or his/her Seattle counterpart is supposed to check to see that genuine media are contained within the Media Mail package. To do this, the inspector can open the little blue box and see the media within. It is not necessary nor a proper inspection to totally unspool the film, Homer Simpson style, drop in on the floor, then scoop it up and stick it in a priority mail box! This is the box the microfiche came in:


If the postal inspector thought that the above is not media, the remedy was to reclassify the package as regular mail, safely reseal it, and charge the customer more. The contract between postal customer and USPS does not permit the USPS to willfully steal or trash the contents of the customer’s packages.

Worse was to come. In place of the stuff we had lost, the opened boxes now contained new stuff — books and DVDs and items that were not ours at all. The “re-wrapped in Seattle” box had lost its contents entirely and been re-packed with multiple copies of National Geographic schoolbooks. We hope the Post Office can locate their real owners.

It was a drag to lose a lot of books. And I imagine that the people who lost their school and college books to us are equally unhappy. Books and media are just stuff. But they are personal stuff, and to know that a government functionary has broken into my mail and stolen my personal belongings is even more annoying than knowing the NSA tracks my phone calls and my Internet. If this had happened in Russia or East Germany in the 1980s Amnesty International would be all over it.

The STASI-eque aspect aside, the stuff they choose to replace my stuff is so ridiculous! Take a look at this — the additional contents of just one of our boxes, inserted there by an employee of the USPS:


The stuffed animals with Tyrolean caps are bad enough — and a serious abuse of Media Mail’s rules, postal employees! But the Tosh DVD? Please. Scroll through my microfilm, steal my books, tear up my screenplays, but do not plant Tosh DVDs among my personal effects!


Just to relate, for those not receiving backers’ updates, that BILL THE GALACTIC HERO has been in preproduction for five weeks now. We have five spacesuits and five more on the way, plus various space vehicles and a robot band. We’re still waiting for the return of our camera tests to determine whether we shoot on Kodak or Orwo black and white stock.

The floods in Boulder caused the closure of the CU campus and our auditions were postponed to the coming weekend. Otherwise we’re still on track, I think.

But the main point of this post is to share with you an article which appeared in yesterday’s Guardian reporting that the British Ministry of Defence is concerned that the English aren’t keen enough on war. In order better to promote war, the unnamed military mandarins propose a five point plan: 1. to ensure that the public is exposed to a “positive campaign narrative” in time to drum up support for the next war; 2. “reduce the profile of the repatriation ceremonies” (till recently dead British solders were given a short parade out of the airfield to which they were returned, draped with the Union Jack. This is to end); 3. “discredit the notion that serving in the armed forces is just another job” (Not just a job! It’s an adventure!); 4. “reduce public sensitivity to the penalties inherent in military operations”; and 5. “indicate an attitude that the service may involve sacrifice and that such acts are knowingly and willingly undertaken” (translation: the damned squaddies are getting paid — they shouldn’t bitch if they get their guts blown out).

You can read the eight-page public schoolboy control fantasy here (the link to download a text version is currently broken).

It’s depressing to see public servants whose salaries are paid by the British public trying to drive their country into further financial ruin, to say nothing of the deaths, torture, and environmental devastation. It’s outrageous to observe their utter disdain for the young men killed by their pernicious tomfoolery. And it’s both salutory and frightening to contemplate points 1. and 4. Just how exactly will the “positive campaign narrative” and the “reduced public sensitivity” be achieved? Via the media. There is no other way. The Army could put up billboards alongside the motorway, I suppose — “Don’t Worry! They’re only Ragheads!” Droney the Drone could visit primary schools and boy scout camps. More likely, the wreck of the British film industry will produce a patriotic flick or two, extolling British military virtues while reminding us that soldiers are little better than mercenaries, and that we shouldn’t worry all that much when they get killed – nor concern ourselves about who they kill in the process.

A corking plan, what? It was devised last year, and just made public via a FOIA request. Can we expect  even less coverage of the war in Afghanistan on the BBC and the other TV stations; no visuals whatsoever of victims of war, on either side; some cute documentaries showing the humanitarian benefits of Predator Drones (identifying sources of water for the refugee camp! Saving FIFA World Cup slaves lost in the Arabian Desert); and maybe even a rolicking miniseries (with a guest American director, ideally), about the S.A.S. or a private mercenary company?




Since Gerry Donaghy was nice enough to send me not one but two books (I just received a copy of The Collaboration from him) I’ll spend Labor Day following through on my promise to compare The Jupiter Plague with Harry Harrison’s earlier version of the same story, Plague From Space.

Both are substantially similar: the earlier one is shorter (the Bantam copy Gerry sent me has 154 pages of story; while the Tor edition of the second book runs to 280 pages — though this is mainly caused by a bigger typeface and fewer words per page), and better. So, for Harrison enthusiasts, two questions arise: why did Harry rewrite his original novel, and what changes did he make? Let me attempt to answer these.

The Plague books are part of a sub-set of science fiction which I would guess is called Medical SF (just as The Forever War and Ender’s Game and Bill The Galactic Hero are apparently termed Military SF). The earliest examples of this that I can think of are C.M. Kornbluth’s Little Black Bag and Rick Raphael’s Code Three. Harry was a prolific writer and dealt with many SF sub-genres; space travel, time travel, alternate histories and universes, and in this case a First Contact story which is also a medical drama. Here the Jupiter probe returns to Earth with a devastating disease on board – prescient as always, Harry chose the plague to be a super-deadly form of avian flu!

Harry wrote quickly, and liked to consult experts on the subject matter of his books. Whatever it was – disease, or overpopulation, or dinosaurs – he would acquire pretty deep info from scientists and include a lot of it in the resulting book. Whether this is a good thing I am not sure: “hard” science fiction often gets bogged down with technical information of interest only to specialists in the field, and Bill is great precisely because Harry didn’t need to consult any experts — he had all the info he needed, first hand. Also, Bill took him several years to complete, whereas most of his books were written in a matter of months. The Galactic swear-word “bowb” appears once in both versions of Plague.

But, why did Harry write the same book twice? Therein lies the tale. In 1969, the up-and-coming author Michael Crichton published his first SF novel, The Andromeda Strain. This is the story of a probe which, having visited Mars, returns to earth bringing with it a deadly virus against which scientists and the military must join forces to fight. If this sounds almost exactly like the set-up of Plague From Space, well, it is. Harry certainly felt it was, and when Crichton’s book made the New York Times bestseller list and was turned into a big-budget, not-very-good Hollywood science fiction movie, Harry also felt that he lost out on a substantial revenue stream. So, realizing that times had changed and that “popular” books were bought on the basis of bulk rather than brevity, he decided to expand Plague From Space.

Harry was always technologically ahead of most people’s game, and I’m sure that when he embarked on the rewrite in 1981, he had both a computer and some form of writing/editing software. Did the original draft exist in some electronic form? Almost certainly not: computers in the 1960s were like HAL in 2001: half a city block long and buried in the basements of high-tech enterprises. So someone transcribed the original book to disk, and Harry, working in DOS or some even more arcane OS, set to work expanding it.

The book begins with the hero, Dr. Sam Bertoli, playing chess against a computer. in the revised version the computer speaks; the Bobby Fischer move Bertoli makes is updated, from 1973 to 1987 – and Fischer’s opponent’s name is changed from Botvinnik to Smyslov. I don’t see the need for any of these changes (except the date, to keep it in the future) but assume they meant something to Harry! The scene where the doctors arrive at JFK airport – where the returning Pericles has crash-landed, is expanded, yet – as in the original book – quite devoid of excitement. This is strange and I can’t understand why Harry – a writer of fluid and exciting action – didn’t beef up the airport disaster. In chapter 3 Harry adds a bit of back story, explaining that our hero became a medic thanks to the example of a Tamil army doctor (the military in this book is the UN Army, which may partially explain why the Esperanto-speaking author is so admiring of its officers and actions, as opposed to his view of the Troopers in Bill.) In chapter 5, the ambulance driver, Killer, goes into detail about a Safeway sacking on the East Side: Harry is never one to romanticize The Mob.

Near the end of chapter 6, Harry adds some dialogue for Dr. Nita, Dr. Bertoli’s squeeze, in which she speculates humankind may go extinct like the dinosaurs. In chapter 8, a “nightmare scene” occurs beneath the Koch Bridge on 23rd Street (previously the Wagner Bridge). And a few words are added to the start of chapter 10, where Nita and Bertoli discover she has contracted the plague. When Bertoli ducks into a bar to get a drink, in the rewrite we’re told he hands over “a five dollar bill.” In the original it as just “a bill”. Presumably this is to allow for inflation. Then, in the rewrite, Harry has Bertoli enter another bar, where he is menaced by junkies eager for the contents of his doctor’s bag. A scene of violent drug addicts being overcome in physical combat by an upright hero was probably de rigeur in New York tales, post Death Wish, and I imagine Harry was thinking of the movie rights when he wrote it.

A scene where Bertoli and a young UN Lieutenant share a pack of cigarettes is gone in the re-write. The flashback, where we learn what took place on the doomed Jupiter mission, is expanded into its own chapter, with scenes aboard the orbiting spacecraft.

The scenes aboard the Pericles on Earth are unchanged. This is a good thing, since their description of the hidden technological changes aboard the craft, and the revelation of what resides within, are splendid. The reader may not be surprised when the Plague books turn out to be a First Contact story; that aspect of the tale is handled very well indeed.

There’s a small addition as Bertoli returns to Bellvue Hospital, in which he beats his fist against the armrest and worries about his beloved (the love story is the least-good part of the tale, the infected heroine being out of action on a hospital bed for more than half of it). And there are interesting changes at the very end — one apparently in error (it seems that the software has got some dialogue in the wrong order, so that Killer is still conversing with Bertoli after he has bowed out) and one in anticipation of a return mission to Jupiter – to be undertaken by robot landers.

Were the changes worth it? Presumably, since the  book sold copies and added to a working writer’s revenue. On the other hand, none of the changes makes any real difference. As a big fan and a friend of Harry, I of course wish that he had concentrated more on writing original material rather than revisiting earlier books for sequels and re-works. But he knew what he was doing, and we are all guilty of this.

A couple of notes about the two volumes: Plague From Space, like all Bantam paperbacks from the 1960s, has a great cover which depicts exactly what the book is about — a plague-sore-raddled, dying spaceman against a field of red. No illustrator is credited, but I’d guess it was Jim Bama, who did the great covers for their Doc Savage series. This volume is also dedicated, to Hubert Prichard, “in memory of the many fine days since 117.” The Tor edition of The Jupiter Plague, on the other hand, has an indifferent cover, featuring a rocket-launching pad, and a huge red Jupiter in the sky, with a skull superimposed on it. The back cover gives the game away — it’s a continuation of the front, and the barcode is superimposed over a reclining figure, whose left leg emerges from it. in other words, it’s probably the cover of another book, recycled for this one! The Tor edition omits the dedication to Hubert Prichard; but above the title the cover reads “Jim Baen Presents: Harry Harrison.” I don’t know who Hubert was, but Baen was a SF publisher who apparently took the Lawrence Lessig approach to electronic publishing, when that came along – refusing to saddle books with DRM, and giving away .rtfs to promote hard copy sales.



Within the same twelve month period (1965-66) Harry Harrison finished three science fiction novels. MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! was his serious take on overpopulation, the only one of his books (so far) to have been filmed. BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO was something he’d been working on for several years — probably since he read STARSHIP TROOPERS and was so pissed off by it. And there was a third book, too: a short novel called THE PLAGUE FROM SPACE. A few years after PLAGUE was published, Michael Crighton published his own novel about a plague from space, which got made into a tedious major motion picture. This annoyed Harry since he felt that Crighton borrowed much of his plot and all of his research (it’s one of his books, like WEST OF EDEN, which came from a process of research and collaboration with gen-u-ine scientists — the way science fiction used to be). So Harry re-worked the book and republished it as THE JUPITER PLAGUE.

Last week, the used bookstores of Oregon yielded up two of Harry’s works – another copy of BILL (can’t have too many of them!) and THE JUPITER PLAGUE, which I had never read before. I haven’t yet found a copy of THE PLAGUE FROM SPACE so can’t comment on how different the two books are. What impresses me is the sheer hard work of which H.H. was capable: three novels in a year, at least one of them a masterpiece.

Yet it’s a puzzling book, as well — hard to believe it’s from the pen of the man who wrote BILL, since it’s heroes are hard-charging medics and army generals (in other words, the people who cause all the problems and stupidity in Harry’s anti-war tract). Thinking about it, all three books — written the same year — seem to contradict each other: BILL is entirely cynical and shows no respect for any authority, of any kind; the hero of MAKE ROOM! is an honest, if ineffectual, police detective; the protagonists of PLAGUE are all authority figures: doctors, cops, the military. All are good, entertaining reads. PLAGUE is the weakest of the three, though it comes back to life splendidly in its final pages when the presence of an incomprehensible alien being aboard the plague ship, managing the viral attacks, is revealed.

But what did Harry think? Are MAKE ROOM! and PLAGUE just “work novels” while BILL reveals the author’s true feelings? Or were there no true feelings — just books? Like most of his contemporaries, Harry wrote fast, aiming for first publication in science fiction magazines, and wrote for a living: that was how he and the family survived. And the market in the mid-sixties was still for “hard”, science-based science fiction (the fashion for imps and elves and dragons and Star Trek/Wars which has devastated the modern medium had not yet occurred) so books like MAKE ROOM! and PLAGUE were more likely to find a publisher. Remember that BILL was rejected by Harry’s regular publisher and it was only the enthusiasm of his dear wife Joan, who found it hilarious, that kept him working on it.

BILL is also unusual in that there is no hard science in it. The Bloater Drive, the dehydrator ray, the robot humans with lizards instead of brains, all is entertaining and full of meaning, but not the kind of meaning a DUNE fan would understand. I love Harry’s writing, but feel that in some books – like the EDEN trilogy and PLAGUE – he was shackled by his science fiction writer’s respect for hard science. He was an intelligent man and he wanted the science to be right – but often that stuff just gets in the way of the story, slowing the narrative pace as the author gets into the nitty-gritty of viruses or reptilian warm-bloodedness. Whereas in BILL, his own experiences were the story. Despite the insanity of it all, nothing was made up or needed to be “researched”. Everything that happens in BILL had happened, one way or another, to Harry Harrison. Many of those things have happened to you and me, too. There is truth in BILL of a greater depth than mere scientific accuracy or historical veracity. Which is why it will endure, I think. (Better make a good film of it, then!)

Revisiting these sixties science fiction books has led me to compile a short list of science fiction stories which may encourage us as we begin work on the film. I really compiled it for my students, but I’ll share it here, and add to it as I remember the titles which are currently eluding me… In no particular order, if you’re interested in reading some outstanding “hard” science fiction, I recommend:

Who Can Replace a Man?, by Brian Aldiss

Lot, by Ward Moore

The Only Thing We Can Learn, by C.M. Kornbluth

The Tunnel Under The World, by Frederic Pohl

Children of the Night, also by Frederic Pohl

Hell is the Absence of God, by Ted Chaing

Sound of Thunder, by Ray Bradbury

Poor Little Warrior, also by Brian Aldiss

(Oh, and here’s a plug for a written offering of my own. Please buy it at your local independent bookstore, or from the publishers!)


Today a great leap forward in the progress of BILL. I measured three 16-9-ish oblong holes in a piece of cardboard, cut them out, and used the card as a template to mark up eighty pages of my new sketchbook with three storyboard frames! So in this book I have 240 different angles to depict. Let’s see how many shots there’ll be in the film… I’m starting the storyboard with scene 3, where Bill wakes from a nightmare that is not a nightmare and begins his training.  Scenes 1 and 2, being animated in the finished film, will be the province of the animation department, style to be determined (though we have agreed that their work will be in black and white, like the rest of the film, rather than a colour intro and coda — a WIZARD OF OZ in reverse).

Travelling back from Boulder to Oregon we passed through Fruita, CO, and visited its Dinosaur Museum. There are animatronic dinosaurs there and I posted a brief DSLR video of them here.

Always seeking inspiration in our tale of war between reptiles and man!


If you were following the Kickstarter campaign – maybe you even backed it – you already know that BILL THE GALACTIC HERO reached its goal and a bit more. Officially 1,106 backers gave the production a total of $114,957.

Most of those funds were raised by “direct traffic” to our Kickstarter page: in other words, people who already knew about the project and sought it out. Facebook was comparatively useless, but Twitter brought in more than fifteen grand. All this was thanks to other people’s social media, for which I am truly grateful, having none of my own. A link on The Guardian website brought us more than a thousand bucks, and a mention on gave us almost a thousand. My own wretched website netted us fifteen hundred bucks. Backers gave us everything from a dollar to $10,000: the average contribution was $103.

The biggest surprise in terms of funding came from two mentions on Slashdot, the venerable technology and free software site: $4,000 all told. This was due to BILL partnering with OpenShot, the multi-platform free software editing system which also raised funding via Kickstarter. So at last those years I spent going to the GNU/Linux users’ group paid off! And I can proudly own to being a pretty clueless GNU/Linux geek who uses the free software operating system on a regular basis.

Most of these posts and the Kickstarter page and updates were written on a little netbook which I bought from a Berkeley company, ZaReason, for three hundred bucks. It came with Mint, a derivative of the Ubunto OS, installed and worked flawlessly out of the box – you know, doing things like finding the wireless network, writing, printing, and downloading software like OpenShot.

Free software desktops really work. They will do what you want. You can dig out that cranky old computer which you put in the used media repository and install a handsome, working GNU/Linux desktop on it today. If it’s a really old ‘un, or you have trouble getting rid of Windows (the pestilential thing likes to hang on sometimes), try a 32-bit installation of Fedora XFCE. That pup is tough and will install itself on anything, and find your wireless.

Why bother to do this? Don’t get my dear friend Richard Stallman started on that. There are many reasons, besides the fact that erasing the OS which came with your computer and installing a different one is mysteriously empowering. But the main thing is that Microsoft and Apple are deplorable companies. MS used to be the number one villain, but Apple, with its overpriced toys and the horrible working conditions of its Chinese slave camps, is surely worse. All MS does is make bad software and dominate the office suite world. Apple’s business policy involves factories where the air explodes and workers commit suicide.

The thing which keeps users tied to Microsoft and Apple is specialist software – in my case, Adobe products like Photoshop and its plug-ins, and editing software like Avid and Final Cut 7. If OpenShot’s Kickstarter upgrade succeeds, it will be a fully-featured editing suite which works across all platforms – MS, Apple, and GNU/Linux. We’ll be editing BILL on it, others will come on board, and maybe I can persuade the buyers in the groves of academe to give up all those Macs and instead purchase a raft of made-in-America Linux boxes!

What Mrs Thatcher (DING! DONG!) said about there being no alternative wasn’t true, and still isn’t. We have alternatives. And thanks to the world-wide interwebs, some of them are free, as in liberty, and also free, as in beer. Speaking of which I’m off tonight to Under The Sun to take advantage of my free pitcher of beer coupon. (That’s enough product placement for now.)

If you’re interested, we didn’t get the full $114,957 to shoot Bill. Kickstarter takes a five percent commission, which is fair, and Amazon, their credit card “processor” take a 4-5% cut for processing credit cards, which usually costs only 2% of the transaction. Add to those commissions some atrophy from people whose credit cards were declined (we pay Amazon for that, too), and the final sum deposited in the Galactic LLC bank account, this very morn, was $104,497.54. So that is the budget of BILL!

Update — I am not alone tapping away on my little GNU/Linux box. The International Space Station has officially abandoned MS WIndows — henceforth all its onboard computers will run Debian GNU/Linux. NASA has used Linux for ground operations for many years – but the conversion of its inflight laptops to Debian (which also runs an experimental humanoid robot aboard the ship) suggests that earthbound computer users have nothing to fear from trying out a free software OS.