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October 4-10, 2006

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Silicon Alleys - Gary Singh

Silicon Alleys

Woz: Los Gatos' Own

By Gary Singh


THE LOST GATOS Chamber of Commerce says this: "The history of Los Gatos hosts a share of lively characters, some of which, like Forbes (but, perhaps, not as shady), remain very much a part of the local color, and whose namesakes act as subtle reminders of their legacy to the town's history."

When you begin to contemplate famous characters that currently reside in Los Gatos, it's hard not to immediately jump to Steve Wozniak. Aside from helping to kick-start the entire personal computer revolution in the '70s, he also organized the US Festivals in the early '80s—events that were a radical combo of a Day on the Green and a fringe electronics jamboree. He even has a San Jose street named after him.

Usually a dude who keeps a low profile, Woz rolled into San Jose last week to promote his new book, iWoz. Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-founded Apple and Had Fun Doing It (Norton; 288 pages; $25.95 cloth). Several folks more stylishly attired than I showed up to the banquet center, atop the Fourth Street Garage, to hear what Woz had to say. He stated that San Jose is important to him and that having a street named after you is one of the best things that can happen to a person.

Most importantly, he talked about the pranks he used to do all throughout his school days and how he still loves to engage in elaborate practical jokes. The backdrop of a good portion of the book centers on pranksterism. In the 313-page work, he writes that in the sixth grade he outperformed a majority of the other students, and thus never fit in socially and was deemed a weird outsider by almost everyone. He expanded on this at the talk by saying it led to inherent energies that needed to be released and that pranks were one of the ways this came about. "They're a form of communication," he explained.

In fact, Woz documents in the book several subversive activities that he and Steve Jobs used to perform in the early '70s, especially the escapades involving the now infamous Blue Box, that homemade machine that allowed one to basically hijack the telephone system. This is Silicon Valley history, folks, whether you like it or not. As the story goes, Woz actually sold Blue Boxes around the Berkeley campus to fund tinkerings that wound up becoming Apple Computer.

We also get a glorious look-see into Woz's college-day pranksterism in the chapter, "The 'Ethical' TV Jammer." In the early '70s, long before cable, he manufactured a pocket-size device that would jam a television signal. He would sit there with a group of people watching TV and then secretly jam the set, making it go dark. A member of the group would walk up and slap the side of the TV, trying to fix the signal, and then Woz would use the gadget to make the signal work again, precisely at the same time. The result? Folks thought that slapping the TV was what fixed the signal when it was actually Woz playing the crowd like puppets. He would go back and forth, jamming the signal, watching the folks hit the TV trying to remedy the problem, and then making the picture go good again.

But pranks occupy only a portion of the book. iWoz is, more than anything else, a blueprint for harnessing the inventive engineer spirit in all of us. It's a testimonial for all introverted kids who feel outside the norm and want to design and invent things with no money and create shit and change the freakin' world. If you're a shy type, but you know you've got the smarts to make serious change, then Woz's story will provide the inspiration.

And don't let anyone tell you that pranksterism is a bad thing. Woz even said that he learned much about patience and teamwork by taking part in elaborately staged pranks in his youth. "Pranks are entertainment, comedy," he writes when describing the TV-jamming prank. "And if you're shocked that I can trick people with my pranks and not feel dishonest about it, remember that the basic form of entertainment is to make up stories. That's comedy."


Contact Gary Singh or send a letter to the editor about this story.