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February, 2012:

The Comco Whatchamacallit


I hung yet more Elfa shelves downstairs the other day, on the only remaining blank wall in my peculiar workshop. I’m trying to get stuff off the floor and into some semblance of order. A number of tube-era radios went up on the shelves almost immediately, including a Heath HW-22A and a pair of Ameco TX-62s, one of which is a parts unit. So did something else: the tube-era thingie shown above, which has been following me around for almost twenty years. I bought it at a hamfest in the early ’90s for a dollar. The old guy who sold it to me didn’t know what it was. I bought it for the sake of the transformers inside, which were worth that much even in 1993. It turns on, lights up, and hums softly. I still don’t know what it’s supposed to do.


It’s made by Comco Communications Company, of Coral Gables, Florida. Its model number is 642-RCU. From the “RCU” I’d guess a radio control unit, or remote control unit. It has no RF parts inside. There’s an audio power amp with a 6AQ5A driving a speaker behind the grille. The front panel has a 4-pin PTT mic jack, a momentary action toggle switch marked “RADIO” above and “INTERCOM” below, with “RADIO” the default position. A hole marked “CHANNEL” with “T1” above and “T2” below is plugged. A conventional toggle switch is marked “TONE SQUELCH” above and “DISABLE” below, and beside that, an On/Off toggle switch marked “POWER”. At the center of the panel is a rheostat marked “VOLUME,” and two grain-of-wheat lamps, the orange one labeled “RECEIVE” and the red one “TRANSMIT.” A round hole the size of a panel meter is plugged. On the back panel is a fuse holder, a 5-terminal strip for spade connectors marked “PHONE LINES” and and empty rectangular knockout marked “EXT. CONTROL” from which a cut-off 4-conductor cable protrudes. That might have been a hack; the cut-off cable goes directly to the mic connector.


There are two pin jacks on the chassis (see above, just past the tan electrolytic) that say, “CURRENT ADJ. 5MA == 0.5V”. I’m guessing that the meter was dropped from the product to reduce its cost, and the pin jacks provided for service techs. To their right and a little way over is another pin jack labeled “COMPRESSOR TEST.” No idea on that one.

The tube complement is: 12AX7, 6BA6, 12AU7, 6AQ5A.

I suppose it might be some kind of phone patch, though it doesn’t look like any phone patch I’ve ever seen. The “RADIO / INTERCOM” switch throws me a little, since there’s no external connector for intercom lines. I haven’t traced the tangles under the chassis to any extent yet, so if I don’t know precisely what it does, it’s partly my own fault.

And I have other things to do. Even my voracious curiosity has its limits. If you’ve ever seen one of these or want to hazard a guess, please do!

Odd Lots

Indies and Gatekeepers

Janet Perlman put me on to this article about why indie publishers (a category that may or may not include self publishers, depending on whom you talk to) get no respect. The whole piece might be summed up this way:

  • Quality is hard work.
  • Quality is expensive.
  • Quantity is no substitute for quality.

I agree, as far as it goes. But that’s not the whole story. You can break a sweat and write a superb novel at considerable expense of time and energy. You can pay an editor to look at it and perhaps fix certain things. You can pay an artist for a great cover. You can pay somebody to do a great page layout, generate print images, ebook files, and so on. Having shelled out all that expense in time, money, and personal energy, you are not likely to sell many books or become especially well-known. Publishing is an unfair business in a lot of ways.

Perhaps the most unfair thing about publishing as we know it now is that it cares not a whit about quality. Sure, the publishers will tell you otherwise. So will the agents, and so will the retailers, assuming you can find any these days. Alas, it’s not true. Publishers, agents, and retailers are indeed our gatekeepers, and the gates are tightly kept. The gates do not open for quality, alas. The gates open in the hope of making money.

This is true not only in quirky markets like fiction (more on which in a moment) but in technical publishing as well. I’ve received and rejected beautifully written books that were well-organized and basically error-free, for a simple reason: The Radish programming language (I just made that up) is used by 117 people world-wide, which means the total worldwide market for a book about Radish is 116. (The author already has a copy.) On the flipside, the best possible book on Windows XP won’t be accepted at any traditional publishing house, because all the books on XP that the universe needs were written a long time ago.

The reverse is also true, to some extent. If a publisher thinks your book will make money, the book will probably be published. Being well-written doesn’t change this equation much. Back in the Coriolis era I spent a lot of money on developmental editors to make a manuscript readable in those cases where I suspected (after market analysis) that the book met a hitherto unmet need. I wasn’t always right, of course, but the point is that I didn’t accept or reject books based on any judgment of quality. What I was looking for was market demand.

This is true of fiction as well, in spades. I picked up Cherie Priest’s steampunk entry Dreadnought last year, and had to force myself to finish it. Two other people in my circle, who live 1,000 miles apart and don’t know one another, both described the book in a single word: Unreadable. (Another said the same of her earlier book, Boneshaker.) Dreadnought was dull, slow, short on ideas, over-descriptive in some places and far too sparse in others. Yet Cherie’s got a following and is evidently doing very well. Somebody at Tor thought her books would make money and took a chance. They were right. That doesn’t make them well-written. (I did like the covers, and covers do matter–if you can get them in front of the readers somehow.)

I don’t want to be seen as picking on Cherie, who will doubtless chew me out if she reads this. It’s a pretty common thing. Nor is it a new thing. Decades ago I read a lot of abominable novels, from Sacred Locomotive Flies to Garbage World. They got into the stores. They probably made their authors at least a little money. (They got mine, after all.) They were crap.

If Dreadnought made money, why would a book that was better written not make money? It’s a long list. The author may not have been able to get a hearing from the gatekeepers in the first place. Luck is needed here, as well as brute persistence, not that persistence is any guarantee. The topic may be considered out of style, or just worked out and already done to death. It may be too long. (I ran into this trouble with The Cunning Blood. Unit manufacturing cost matters.) The book may have been judged to push buttons in the public mind that the publisher would prefer not to push. (Back when I was in high school I read a purely textual porn comedy novel that was brilliantly written and hilarious. Would I publish it? Not on your life.) Books that demean women or minorities a little too much, or focus on cruelty to animals (or probably a number of other things) won’t be picked up as easily, and it has nothing to do with quality. It’s tough to make money in publishing, and publishers are trolling for as broad a market as possible.

This is why I think the article on HuffPo cited above is misleading. Quality is a problem, but not as much of a problem as the author thinks, and not in the same ways. Worse, solving the quality problem won’t make an indie publisher’s books any more likely to get into B&N, and suggesting to indie publishers that they will is just dishonest.

So what’s the answer? Don’t know. There may not be one. The publishing industry is in the process of changing state, and nobody knows what we’ll inherit in five or ten years. Losing B&N (or waking up one day to find that B&N is a tenth the size it was yesterday) could work to indie publishing’s advantage, at least if independent bookstores fill the subsequent vacuum. The more gates to the retail channel there are, the more likely it is that one will open when you buzz. Self-published ebooks have worked for people like Amanda Hocking with Herculean energy who write for twelve hours and then promote themselves the other twelve. Tonnage can get you noticed, even if it’s bad tonnage.

For the rest of us, again, I don’t know. Quality in all writing (fiction especially) is not the choke point. It’s an unfair and beneath it all a mysterious business. Submit good work if you can, but be prepared to have the gates shut in your face a lot. That’s just what gates do.

Theme Creep

Sorry for being gone so long. I guess I just had to get past January. We saw the last of the painters this morning, and the only remaining big piece of this ever-expanding remodeling puzzle is the floor coverings. I wouldn’t have thought that getting bids on carpeting would be this hard. It is, at least if you don’t want to get crap carpet and have it installed by idiots. (Now on our seventh house, we’re fussy. Real fussy.) I’m doing two more Elfa buildouts, and shopping for some new office furniture. When I’ve had the energy and presence of mind to write, I made an executive decision to devote it to Ten Gentle Opportunities rather than blogging.

I lost a lot of time in the last few months, but that had nothing to do with the novel. It’s cooking along, and I got another 1,600 words down yesterday. In reading the new material over last night, I realized that something interesting had begun happening when I wasn’t quite looking: The theme was changing, and not necessarily in a good direction.

Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. The idea came out of a thoroughly trunk-ish humorous novelette that I wrote in 1981 and buried in embarrassment, concerning a newly built but malfunctioning AI copier that decides that it’s God, and declares jihad against the hapless AI process controller that runs the copier factory. In 1984, my fiction mentor Nancy Kress agreed to collaborate with me on a revision of the concept at novel-length as a half-fantasy love story, adding in a universe-jumping magic hacker (in the manner of Harold Shea) who drops in on a small advertising agency in Rochester, New York to hide from a berserk magician, and magic that “maps” to software in our boring, magic-free world. The magic hacker acts as a catalyst to heal the relationship of two middle-aged people, and in the process learns about software. When he returns to his own universe, he discovers that software “maps” to a form of magic far more potent than anything his erstwhile tormenter can summon. End of story.

In our 1984 effort, there were only two AIs: one the factory controller, and the other a tinkered-up magical intelligence that maps to software in our world. In a brief (and silly) subplot, the magical software falls in love with the factory controller, and in a sort of virtual sexual union, they combine into something a good deal more capable than either was on its own. Mostly, the AIs were played for laughs and acted as foils to the human hero and heroine, whose relationship they loosely echoed.

The concept had promise, but in 1984 I was only barely a grownup (32) and just couldn’t pull it off. Nancy graciously ceded me her portions, and everything went back into the trunk, where it stayed until 2006. I pulled it out and read it over that year, and very abruptly, brand-new scenes began rising out of the cluttered back rooms of my subconscious. I sat down one evening and wrote a new opening, “just for fun.” Boom! Suddenly I had a rigorous system of magic, a magical intellect that spoke only in poetry, an evolved magical predator resembling a lamprey from the astral planes, zombies dancing the Macarena, a 3-D processor technology that packs tens of thousands of execution cores into a blade module, the Triumph of Pascal (as a fictional but heavily parallel language called HyperLang, get it?) and several more AIs.

The love story was still there in the middle of it all, at least in the outline. Now, I have this old habit of heaving ideas into a story with a pitchfork. Once I grabbed my pitchfork, the love story started to get buried in ideas, most of which lay in the AI characters. What does it really take to make an AI that looks and sounds like a human being? If you start with something powerful but alien and make it human by shooting it full of NOPs and bad animation, is that a win? What would the AIs think once they understood what was going on?

Is virtual suffering real suffering?

I’ve done idea stories all my writing life, but I’ve never done a love story. I guess it’s not surprising that I’m having a lot of fun with the ideas, and a lot of heartburn over the human relationships. I’m doing my best. The path of least resistance, however, is to have fun with the AIs and their virtual lives in the Tooniverse while the human characters recede into the background. If I’m not careful and don’t begin paying attention to my outline, that is precisely what’s going to happen. I looked in the mirror this morning while shaving and said, “Be warned.”

In some ways the story has come full-circle. It was originally a battle between a humorless factory controller system and a psychotic AI living in a faulty networked copier. I’m having to struggle a little now to keep it from becoming The League of Exceptional Software pitted against slobbering malware from another universe, while their human friends look on in befuddlement and occasionally cheer.

Most of my stories have evolved as they crossed the brain/fingers barrier. A lot of them have died in the evolving, which is why my trunk, in terms of paper alone, weighs thirty or forty pounds. I’m determined not to lose Ten Gentle Opportunities the same way. After all, it’s taken literally half my life to write, and I have only so many half-lives to go.