How I rebuilt Europe after the Berlin Wall collapsed
Morgan Computers, Moscow and Me
Comment Morgan Computers has shuttered its stores as we celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. The coincidence might not mean much to you, but Morgan and the Wall go together for me in a strange way: it was Morgan that indirectly funded my wanderings over the rubble that the Wall's collapse revealed.
I - like everyone else of age - had been watching that autumn as the near unthinkable happened. In September, hundreds of East Germans legged it over the border, abandoning cars and luggage and taking just themselves and their children. Nobody shot at them to make them stop.
Then in November, 20 years ago today, came that glorious moment at Bornholmer Strasse. As PJ O'Rourke put it: “We won... We the people, the free and equal citizens of democracies, we living exemplars of the Rights of Man tore a new asshole in International Communism... The privileges of liberty and the sanctity of the individual went out and whipped butt.”
I personally date the exact moment to when one of the crowd turned to the border guard at the Wall and said “don't be stupid”. When the goons, those with the guns and the right, nay duty, to use them on the citizenry are held in contempt rather than fear, then the dictators really do need to start packing their bags.
Of course, me being the grotty little capitalist shit that I am, I headed over as fast as I could to see whether money could be made out of the collapse of an entire socio-economic system. I'm glad to say that by man exploiting man - very much the opposite of socialism, of course - it was indeed possible.
First stop was Karl Marx University in Budapest, where a Professor of Math was asked: “Well, if we westerners have all these fast computers and you have ghastly cheap tat for hardware, but we're both able to launch rocket systems and the like, doesn't that mean that your software is better?”. The answer was “yes”, but only for a given value of “better”. It may have been more efficient, and relied less on brute force and memory and more on elegance of construction, but that was about it.
But that efficiency and the low wages over there then were enough to found a business on. There was one part of programming that was acutely aware of the need for efficiency of this kind: games programming. So we had people in attics in Poland cutting down the source of Amiga games so they could be released for the relic population of Commodore 64s. A team in Moscow did the impossible, and ported Another World over to Windows. Animations for Clayfighter were, umm, animated.
But the more we sniffed around, looking for those elusive bucks, the more we realised quite what a bizarre world this was in technology terms. Which is where the connection with Morgan came in.
Who would have thought that in 1993 there would be a ready market for 180kb floppy drives? But out in the regional wilds - Moscow was always far in advance of the rest of the country - there was. No sooner would we bring in a box of them - or 10MB hard drives, mono VGA cards, or whatever else Morgan had cleared out of an ancient warehouse that week - than there would be calls from places like Tver, Omsk and Perm, asking us to hold the item until they could get to us by train, cash grasped in hot little hands.
So we had a slightly bizarre operation going on. On the one hand we were selling whatever tchotchke Morgan could ship us as fast as we could drag it out of the aeroplanes. On the other we were trying to work out what there actually was of value in Russian computing that might be worth exporting. Games, yes, but that market disappeared as budgets grew and grew, although my own management inadequacies may have shared the blame as well. But there were still weirdnesses.
One colleague ended up giving a scientific institute an entire network. He handed over a 386 server, the network and a 286 for every desk, in return for the old Soviet box they had been using on a time share basis. He didn't want the box for the CIA or anything: the gold on the contacts was worth more than the entire network he'd just installed. I was called to an Academician's apartment one day and asked if I wanted a plot for a computer game. Well, yes, sure, what was the plot? It was, umm, the Soviet Union's entire nuclear war games book. None of it actually make it into a game but they were quite happy for me to take the book off to get it translated. By the Royal Navy.
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