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Morgan Computers, Moscow and Me

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Who ordered that software? The KGB of course

On another occasion we were asked to look around at fingerprint identification systems. A company called Printrack (still extant) was bidding for the FBI system and they wanted to know if there were any useful algorithms out there. The Moscow computing world was pretty small, and we ended up talking to a man a couple of weeks later who had written a system. He handed over the source code quite happily, pointing out that if we liked it then we'd come back, as he was ready to build the next generation system. The one he had given us, although a working system, was just the first generation. Who had he developed it for? “The KGB of course!”

Possibly the most absurd story I heard, although I am assured it was true, was the case of the 286 chips. The Soviets had realised that they really weren't going to be able to match Intel and the like at making processors. But there was no real reason why they shouldn't be able to put an Intel processor into a Soviet manufactured motherboard. But the Soviet Union was supposedly “rational” and run by logic, of however perverted a kind.

Pins on processors back then were spaced at one tenth of an inch: that's 2.54mm. It is obviously absurd to have that hanging 0.04 of a mm on the spacing and they were rigorously metric. So they rounded the hole size to 2.5mm. At least, that is the story I was told when I was offered several thousand 286 chips from that factory some years later. I didn't buy them but I knew someone who would, again to melt down for the gold content.

Absolutely the most absurd thing I personally witnessed was down to that logic again, the blinkered rationality which underpinned the entire absurd system. Marx was correct: the value of an item was the value of the labour that had gone into its production. The first copy of a piece of software had all of the labour that had gone into specifying, writing, debugging and so on. So that first copy had a high value. However, the second copy required only the labour of copying it plus the media it was copied onto. It was actually illegal to sell it at any price higher than that.

Yes, there is some value in the Labour Theory of Value, but you would hope for a little flexibility in being able to amortize that over more than one copy. You would want to get back some of that upfront investment from the second, third and future copies. But no, the strict adherence to Marxist logic precluded that. It is one reason, all these years later, that I think the place was such a shit hole. Yes, the basic logic was wrong but it wouldn't have been so bad if they'd actually been pragmatic about it, rather than rigorously adhering to every ridiculous detail.

Having been there, having seen the rubble that a socialist attempt at the world leads to, I am of course dancing with glee again at the 20th anniversary of it all falling over. But at the same time I'm less than happy at the how things have worked out for Morgan. This is partly because the hunger for their products taught me something about that rubble, and partly because that hunger paid me to observe a society climbing back up from under it.

Perhaps this is just the nostalgia of a middle aged man for part of his youth. I feel no Ostalgie at all: that system deserved to die, and to be buried at the crossroads with a stake though its heart and garlic between the teeth. But Morgan Computers?

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