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.
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?