Smuggling computers — to help a nation

It started about four decades ago. I was finishing my studies in Philosophy at the University of Hamburg, where I had a job as an assistant to a professor. I had a room on the 13th floor of the main building, short working hours, a nice income — and almost three months of vacation in the summer. These I used for multiple overland trips to Asia, travelling through the Balkans, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, on occasion all the way to Singapore. These stories will be told in the future.

As I mentioned elsewhere my intended career as a university teacher of philosophy ground to a halt when I became disillusioned with classical philosophy, and furthermore realized that there would be no vacancy for me at university to get a post — ever. So, before I had finished my studies, I embarked on a career as a science journalist on German TV and spend a number of years doing wonderfully interesting documentaries. This article describes what that was like, and this one how I migrated to computers and in 1986 co-founded a chess software company.

The software company was called ChessBase, and our database program soon became the staple of top chess players (and serious amateurs) all over the world. At the same time “laptop computers” became popular, and everyone was saving to get one, in order to work and study on the road. But there was a problem: for many top chess players in Russia, India and other countries, there were heavy restrictions on the import of technical hardware, so it was difficult getting hold of this vital equipment.

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The kind of “shlep-top” computer people in those early days urgently needed. This model (photo Wiki) , weighed over 4 kg and cost more than $4000 in today’s currency. After import duties that was over $10,000.

Before I describe how things progressed let me try to give you an impression of the situation. Already in my student years, when I was travelling to Asia in the summer, I ran into the problem of strict import restrictions. Anything technical you took into India, Burma, Malaysia, etc. was charged a heavy duty, or it was entered into your passport, forcing you to show that you still had it when you left the country. One example of what this entailed:

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On a trip through Burma (today Myanmar) I had a lovely camera with me, a Mamiya Sekor DDL 1000 TL, which, together with an alarm clock, was registered on entry. I actually found the document from the time.

On the last evening I left the camera in my YMCA room while I went out for dinner. On return it was gone — stolen. The hostel management did a pretend search in one of the staff rooms and naturally found nothing. It was the end of the matter for them — but not for me.

At the airport the next day the customs official started checking the items I had brought into the country. My girlfriend Ingrid, with whom I was travelling, was terrified and saw us being arrested in a scary military dictatorship. But I had presence of mind: when they asked for the camera noted on the document I pulled out and fiddled around with a small pair of binoculars, while talking all the time (“Yes, it’s dusty, I must have it cleaned. Hey, is that the plane we will be flying on? Looks great. Do we get a meal on it?”). They answered my questions and cleared me through. I gained Ingrid’s lifelong admiration for my steel nerves.

Another example that illustrated the dire import situation. One day we received in Hamburg a little parcel from a dear (and very smart) friend in India. It contained a little toy camera made of plastic, with no explanation attached. Quite a mystery, until a week later a letter arrived. “I have sent you a fake camera,” the friend wrote, “and have a declaration that it is a Canon SLR being dispatched for repair. Can you please buy me the model xxx, remove it from the package, smear a little dirt from your balcony over it — make it look used — and send it to me.” That is how Farook managed to purchase a high-tech camera and get it into the country, while avoiding the 150% tax that was imposed on such things.

Over the years and over many trips I became quite an expert on going unhindered through customs with electronic gadgets. This became much more difficult when I was carrying a full computer, and when customs had started x-raying your luggage on arrival. I managed to get through a couple of times using simple personal interaction. For instance, on one trip there was a queue in front of the x-ray machine, and I simply walked past, pushing my luggage trolley. I left it standing and approached the official behind the machine, engaging him in brief conversation (“Am I at the right airport for my onward flight? No?? How do I get to the the domestic airport? Are there taxies? What if I cannot find one?”) Then, and this is crucial, I let five minutes pass before I proceeded to the exit. There I was stopped because I did not have the clearance stamp on my luggage tags. So I went back to the officer behind the x-ray machine and said: “Excuse me, you forgot to stamp my luggage tags. My fault — I distracted you with my stupid questions. By the way, I saw there are plenty of taxies outside, so that’s great.” etc. During this conversation he stamped my luggage tags, those of someone he vaguely recognized, and I was through with a laptop in my suitcase.

You may not be approving of these swindles, but there was some justification for them. I had a number of very talented friends, some of them world class chess players, who desperately needed computer equipment but were unable to afford paying two and a half times the western high street price for them. India, for instance, imposed this kind of tax on all digital equipment.

The Ghandi assassination — an aside

At the time I had a fairly influential friend. He in turn was a friend of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was campaigning for re-election. I wrote Ghandi a letter, which my friend promised to deliver, and make sure Rajiv actually read it. In the letter I said: “The expectation that India will build its own computer hardware, on level with the US or Taiwan, is quite illusionary. Even Germany cannot pull it off. India should bet on the other side of the coin— computer programming. The country will never become a leader in the manufacture of digital hardware, but it could become a world leader in programming and software. The best thing you can do (if you win the election) is to eliminate all import duties on computers, and in fact subsidize them for colleges and software companies. That will pay back the loss of import revenue a hundred times over.”

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Unfortunately, a few weeks later, before he could receive my letter, Rajiv Gandhi was dead — blown up in a suicide attack. You can read about all of it in this contemporary article, and in this 25th anniversary retelling.

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Rajiv Gandhi at an election rally. Highlighted in the upper left is the suicide assassin, minutes before the deed. She is wearing an RDX-based device containing approximately 10,000 steel pellets. The blast killed 15 people.

I was in Bangalore in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, and visited an exhibition that was staged to hunt down the perpetrators who had been steering the plot. There were graphic pictures of the rearranged body parts of the suicide bomber Thenmozhi Rajaratnem, a young lady from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers). And while the hunt for the ring-leaders was under way I actually drove past the house in which the leader, whom people called Ottraikkannan or one-eyed jack, was hiding.

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Storming of the hideout — scene from AMR Ramesh’s film

When the police surrounded the house a few weeks later he and his co-conspirators swallowed cyanide and killed themselves, rather than being captured alive. A full re-enactment of the assassination is to be found in this 1¾-hour Tamil movie by AMR Ramesh.

But I digress and need to return to the main subject of this story. The computers I smuggled into the country were put to good use. One, for instance, was used to found an accounting company that is still operating in Bangalore today. Another I brought in for one of the original founders of Wipro, which is now a giant enterprise.

Here’s a final episode from my smuggling days: I was in Hong Kong, and on my way back to Germany stopped over in Madras (today known as Chennai) to visit a friend. I had a full laptop in one of my suitcases, and this time I was not able to avoid the x-ray machine. Together with the customs official I saw the computer in full clarity on the CRT screen, keyboard and all. The official said: “That’s a computer! You have to pay duty on it.” He ordered me to go to the “red line” (I was in the green one) where they deal with smugglers. He called out to the colleague who was in charge of that line: “This man has a computer in his suitcase!”

I was in big trouble. The computer was for the friend who urgently needed it, and having it registered in my passport would mean I had to take it out of the country again. So what do you do in a situation like this? Well, I walked over contritely to the red line and, when the very strict and rigorous looking officer asked me to show him the computer, I opened — the other suitcase! From this I pulled out a chess computer module, about the size of a cigar box, and said: “Well, it’s not really a computer, it’s a module that makes my computer back home stronger at playing chess. Yes, of course I will take it out of the country again. I need it in Germany.” And with the original official glaring over from a distance this one assiduously filled out the reference in my passport, gave his colleague a thumbs up, and let me through. Phewww!

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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