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.
Next page: Who ordered that software? The KGB of course
"The brute force method of throwing more hardware at the problem may be the less expensive (and even quicker) way to get the job done in a particular economic situation, but I feel the ability to do more with less exhibited by the Eastern European programmers is something to be proud of."
Oh, agreed. Sorry, that comment was just my inner economist screaming to be let out.
@ Tim Worstal
"For you want to minimise your use of the scarce resource. What you want is the best "system" at the lowest price."
I see what you're saying here, and I agree that the Western computer systems as a whole were better than their Eastern counterparts. At that point in the article, however, you were talking specifically about their software and I would contend that more efficient and elegant really is better in software terms. The brute force method of throwing more hardware at the problem may be the less expensive (and even quicker) way to get the job done in a particular economic situation, but I feel the ability to do more with less exhibited by the Eastern European programmers is something to be proud of.
@ Daniel Wilkie
Well, at least that's honest. Personally, I'm pretty happy with my comfortable situation in life too, but I want to see the great minds of the world strive to improve everybody's situation. I would sooner trust a Marx or a Trotsky than an Ayn Rand.
"the blinkered rationality which underpinned the entire absurd system"
Just like in any Dilbert-compliant western company then. Or the rationale of the market rule. Or the creation of financial derivative products in cascade.
No need of a Russion Mob to threaten western democracy, (mostly) Republicans (Nixon, Reagan & Oliver North, Bush & Rumsfeld, etc) do this just fine. And succeed.
> Y'know, much the same logic is used in IT exporting when dealing with "friendly" middle-eastern nations. I wonder when *that* will turn around and bite us in the rear-end?
You are so out of touch! It has already happened again and again, much to the benefit of the US industry. Most prominent atm: Who do you think supported the talibans to rise and fight the soviets? But also who armed Saddam against Iran? And on and on...
@Anonymous Coward 17:12
No taking advantage of people here: the gear was worth much more than the gold to these guys. Win-win.
Just like you money is worth more than their carrots to the guys selling them on the local market.
This is called commerce.
> Too bad the US is sliding into such parternalism/socialism/statism.
Like many Americans, you are mistaking heavy-handed police surveillance state for socialism.
Socialism is about taking better care of the citizens: access to health, education, work, etc, for all.
Police states are in no way exclusive to socialism (even if socialism has used police states): some US-backed dictatorships are in no way socialist (but some are a bit, like Uzbekistan).
Somehow, the US has slided towards a situation were they have the worst of both worlds: no state care for its citizens, and heavy state powers. Please do defend your democracy, but target the right foes.
The Time When XP's Testing For Bugs Began
There were computer magasines in SU before the 286icans, mostly of Texas Instruments, came and, generally, everyone involved in the ring knew that US technical export brings flattened crocks of - sshhh - IT. To withdraw even a Lisa, Mac GS or a fashionable Sun graphic station out of the "West" through American Custom office was impossible for a civil one. But even in 2009 there are plans "to settle in Russia an innovative Western hi-tech production plant to print 90-nm processor chips", costs a huge lot, just looks like they've bought somebody from the government and sell a recovered mainline to crooks from the ruling mob. Someone even had the courage to offer some hardware to Putin personally, as Reggers could read recently.
Anyway, Soviet Iskra and ES series (thx KGB for 8086 delivery, but they forgot to include a mouse in the first mail package) looked great in 80s, before the face of metal 16-kg home-made personal monster called DVK (jokingly "WCC", a "Wooden Computational Complex, древесно-вычислительный комплекс) with alfabetical Matrix-type black-green display... well, some dinos must remember.
When West stops selling innovations of 90s by the way of the bribery? The answer is obvious, I suppose: just when there will be no bribers on duty in offices of the government. Thus, there are still "evil commies" in Russia, but they are some members of different hi-sci commitees.
"So basically you took advantage of people who had no knowledge of how much their stuff was worth."
No. I added value to what they were doing by being there to add that value. The labour of the salesman is, after all, labour, which in itself has value.